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South Carolina GOP Voters Size Up Donald Trump, Rest of 2016 Field

A focus group sponsored by The Riley Institute at Furman University and moderated by pollster Peter Hart offered insight into the Palmetto State race.
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As the GOP primary field turns its attention to South Carolina, Donald Trump is still what he's been throughout almost all of the 2016 cycle: An irrepressible and dominant force, even as many mainstream Republican voters remain deeply conflicted about what his rise means for the party and for political discourse in America.

A focus group sponsored by The Riley Institute at Furman University and moderated by pollster Peter Hart revealed significant anxiety among some GOP primary voters about Trump as a candidate, but all of the 10 participants said they would still support Trump over Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup, and all but two said they expect him to win the state's primary next Saturday.

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Asked to name the candidate most capable of beating the Democratic nominee in November, only one participant named the current GOP frontrunner. But while a majority called Trump divisive, all but three in the group said his candidacy has had a net positive effect on the party by mobilizing disaffected voters.

Image: ***Bestpix*** GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Campaigns In South Carolina Day After NH Primary
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally February 10, 2016 in Clemson, South Carolina.Alex Wong / Getty Images

Patricia, who works in custom drapery, described Trump as a reflection of the "Black Friday special" mentality of many Americans.

"They're looking for the cheapest way to get the most," she said. "A lot of people are worried about a lot of things, and the surest steed to ride is the offensive one."

"I wonder if it shows a selfishness of the people of our nation, because I see Donald Trump as a very selfish person," added Anne Marie, a homeschooling mother and ministry blogger.

When moderator Peter Hart asked whether Trump appeals to "our better angels" as Americans, no hands went up.

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And yet, he is still largely viewed as an unstoppable force.

"Donald Trump is the alpha candidate. He's polarizing. He's exasperating. He's also mesmerizing," Hart told NBC News. "You can feel that even with those people who are not voting for him in the primary, everyone seems to admit that he's going to win. There's sort of a foregone conclusion that there really isn't a second competitor or somebody who's crowding him."

In a year when political outsiders have thrived, these voters were divided over whether political experience was a boon or a drag on presidential hopefuls.

"I'm worrisome about someone who's never held public office," said Susan, a self-employed travel agent who was one of six in the group who said she would be concerned about a nominee without past political experience. "I think sometimes we can see an independent — and I'm speaking of Trump — as the flashy red stiletto. And it's great and it's fun and it's jazzy and fun to watch, but at the same time when you have real hard work to do, you need something sensible."

"We need somebody with political capital, somebody that knows how to play the game," said Bob, a retiree who supports Jeb Bush. "You can't come in off of Main Street and know how to work with Congress."

Gary, a committed Trump backer who is a maintenance manager, disagreed. "[Trump] surrounds himself with people who know what they’re doing and know how to answer the questions that need answering," he said.

Gary was one of two avowed Trump supporters in the group, while a third said he was weighing a vote for either Trump or Cruz.

But those who didn't support the real estate mogul said they would be nervous and concerned if he was to become the commander in chief.

Asked to describe the real estate mogul in a single word, Trump's Republican skeptics labeled him "flashy," "dogmatic," "narcissistic," "divisive," "greedy," and "braggadocious."

And even his backers said that Trump's promise to build a wall at the Mexican border was more of a metaphor than a concrete proposal.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz faced some surprisingly tough assessments in a state where evangelicals — an important part of his base in Iowa — make up a majority of GOP primary voters.

"Despite the importance of religion to this group, you didn’t feel that Ted Cruz scored or that Donald Trump was penalized” for their respective religious views, said Hart.

The words used by the group to describe the Texas senator: "Negative," "divisive," "opportunist," "family," "doctrinaire," "new face," "car salesman," and "moral."

Byron, a bicycle shop owner who supports Trump, described Cruz as "shady."

"I don't want to be in a foxhole with him," he said.

Diana, a self-employed data manager who likes Marco Rubio, compared Cruz to the "family attorney who's brilliant" but whom she'd likely avoid at the Thanksgiving table.

"He's a good man," said David, a civil engineer who is considering voting for Cruz. "I just think in the political structure that we have he has estranged the leadership of his own party and I'm not sure he can make it."

The participants were somewhat sunnier about Jeb Bush, although several expressed concern about the continuation of a political dynasty, and the two Trump supporters dismissed him as their most disliked candidate.

The words to describe Bush: "leader," "old school," "political family," "good executive leader," "as dumb as his brother," "smart" and "practiced."

Asked which member of their family Bush might represent, several participants named an older brother -- "someone dependable, who you can trust" -- or a father figure who is "very constant and stable."

Marco Rubio received some mixed - but mostly positive - reviews as well. Four agreed with one Republican woman's statement that the Florida senator reminded her of a used car salesman who "tells the buyer whatever they wanna hear." But fans cited him as a politically talented newcomer who could bring Hispanics back to the party.

"He’s a little bit of establishment and a little bit of a fresh face," said Susan. "I like that combination."

Rubio's stumbling debate performance last Saturday did not go unnoticed by these voters, who chuckled knowingly when one voter recommended that Rubio "cut that string off his back so that they can't keep pulling it and making him say the same thing over and over again."

John Kasich was also viewed through a generally positive lens, although several members of the group acknowledged that they still did not know much about the New Hampshire primary's runner-up.

The words to describe him: "optimistic," "good businessman," "second choice," "still learning," and "good governor."

One other item made clear by the conversation: Despite overwhelming respect for Ben Carson, the days when he was viewed as a viable candidate are a distant memory. Seven of the ten in the group said they would be concerned if he became president.

"I just don't know what he can do in public office. There isn't a learning curve to be president," said Bob.

The roller-coaster ride of the GOP primary — particularly revolving around Trump's unlikely rise — even prompted some big-picture media criticism from these voters.

"The excitement surrounding him kind of shows that it's almost like we're looking for entertainment," said Susan. "Who can be exciting? Who can give us this great speech versus what the substance of it is and what their character is. We're a soundbite society."

When the group was asked how they would feel if Trump became president, responses ranged from "oh no!" to "batten down the hatches" to "I hope it's one term."

And there was wide agreement with one sentiment: "I'll be praying for him."