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The color red runs deep in South Carolina.
As potential candidates begin making moves towards entering what’s expected to be a crowded Republican presidential primary, activists in this critical early primary state are already starting to size up their choices. And more than one year before they head to the polls as the third state to chose the Republican nominee, strong negative opinions have already formed around some candidates by grassroots activists that could be difficult to unravel.
At the 4th annual South Carolina Tea Party Convention at an aging beach-front resort at the south end of Myrtle Beach, conservative activists expressed everything from vitriol to dismissal of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“If Bush wins, I won’t even go vote”
For tea party activists here in the Bible Belt with a deep tradition of the Citadel, threads of religious and national security conservatism are evident. They want “strong conservatives,” and for them, that does not include Romney nor Bush.
“We’ve had three elections where we allowed the Republican establishment to give us three tired old men who they think have earned the right to be president,” 84-year-old Dean Anderson of Greenville, said, referring to Romney, John McCain in 2008 and Bob Dole in 1996, all losing Republicans.
“If Bush wins, I won’t even go vote,” said Peggy Bushey, who is backing Texas Senator Ted Cruz. When asked if it was a vote for him or potential Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, she said, “What’s the difference? Except that an evil woman is far worse than an evil man. She’s the worst of them all, but why bother?”
Her friend, Kim Parigoris, said she would not stay home from the polls, but she “would not be very happy to support Jeb Bush.”
Bush’s support for Common Core education standards and backing components of immigration reform kept surfacing. With Romney, the outright opposition wasn’t as overt, but he is facing a hurdle that might be even more difficult to overcome than disagreement with his positions: His time is over.
"If the Republican Party decides it will be Romney, I think they’ll be quite surprised what happens"
These activists know Romney. He spent a significant time campaigning here in 2008 and 2012, but they didn't support him then, either. This time around, they say he had his chance; and he blew it. Time to move on, they say.
“It would be a mistake,” thirty-something Matthew Kleinman of Summerville said about a Romney run. “I’m afraid that would make a difficult battle for Republicans to take the White House.”
“If the Republican Party decides it will be Romney, I think they’ll be quite surprised what happens,” said Gerri McDaniel, public relations director for the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition, meaning people won’t vote.
While Bush and Romney are able to garner the support of wealthy, large donors, it’s the grassroots activists who give $25 or $50 dollars to political campaigns and who are more numerous at the polling booth that could cause problems for candidates. The activists came relatively close to derailing Romney’s primary victory in 2012.
Only one person didn’t have overtly negative opinions about Romney. Parigoris, the middle-aged woman from Myrtle Beach, said she would support Romney because he is “a good businessman” and would “surround himself with very confident people.”
Speaker after speaker at the three-day conference continuously referenced low conservative voter turnout in recent presidential elections. They say evangelicals and small government conservatives stayed home.
“It’s not completely their fault,” Dr. Ben Carson, a potential presidential candidate who spoke at the conference, said of his estimation that 30 million evangelicals didn’t vote. “I can tell you why these people didn’t vote: because they can’t see one iota difference between Democrats and Republicans.”
“If you compare 2004 to 2008 and 2012, by far the biggest difference is the millions of conservatives who showed up in ‘04 who stayed home in ‘08 and ’12,” Sen. Ted Cruz, also a conference speaker, said, arguing that South Carolina Republicans need to elect a “principled” conservative.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-SC, a tea party favorite who was applauded for his vote against Rep. John Boehner for House Speaker, spoke at the conference but refused to comment on a third potential Romney run. He wasn’t encouraging another Romney run.
“He’s getting a lot of push back from all across the country, so we’ll see if he really jumps in the race,” Duncan told NBC News.
As for Bush, Duncan is also withholding judgment. He said Bush called him last week and asked to sit down and talk to the South Carolina congressman about how he could earn his support.
“I look forward to talking with all of them until I come to a conclusion,” Duncan said.
But the tea party activists didn’t have such an open mind.