Trump, Cruz and Carson 'Tea Party' down South

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Despite the fast-approaching Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary eight days after that, South Carolina has seen a surge in presidential politicking over the past several days.

With last week's Fox Business GOP debate in Charleston and NBC's bareknuckled Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders Sunday night passion-fest in the same city, folks down this way — despite the freezing temperatures — are starting to warm up to the idea that they soon will be getting their own Cecil B. DeMille close-up in the unfolding dramedy otherwise known as the race for the White House.

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Raising the interest level and stakes in South Carolina these days is the fact that the state's Feb. 20 GOP primary will no doubt play a bit of a canary-in-the-coal-mine role for some of the more beleaguered campaigns as they struggle to stay alive heading into the delegate-rich Super Tuesday primaries on March 1.

Along with the two highly covered Charleston debates, some very interesting marks on the GOP side of the political stage were hit — or missed — at this year's South Carolina Tea Party's yearly convention at the Springmaid Beach Resort in Myrtle Beach.

Not quite a five-star venue where you would find well-suited and -coiffed movers and shakers elbowing one another for face time with a potential leader of the free world, Springmaid is an informal, down-home, Cracker Barrel, K&W Cafeteria, buffet-line kind of place more suited toward regular folks not dressing to impress and wary of those who do. The one exception for the Tea Partyers, of course, is their own quite well-dressed, albeit mysteriously coiffed, front-running populist billionaire, whom folks down here still affectionately call "The Donald."

These South Carolina Tea Partyers are no latecomers to the Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump slams 'totally biased' judge in Trump U case Ex-pharma CEO Martin Shkreli: I didn’t endorse Trump Five things Clinton needs to do to win the California primary MORE bandwagon either. One year ago, the current GOP front-runner spoke to this same group and brought the house down when he mentioned that he was toying with the idea of getting into the race. A lot has happened since then. Trump not only entered the race; he quickly began to dominate it. And these South Carolina Tea Partyers have been with him every step of the way. For his part, Trump genuinely seems to consider these Carolina proud, red-white-and-blue gun-owning, American-flag-pinned, God-fearing, regular folks as his base.

Although South Carolina Tea Party founder and convention organizer Joe Dugan expresses an unbiased amount of pleasure toward all six presidential candidates who showed up for this year's convention, he seems particularly proud that last year's event unofficially marks the beginning of Trumphenomena nationwide.

Dugan's personal story about his own foray into national politics seems to mirror that of many I spoke to during this year's convention. Outraged about the way he saw the country going, Dugan, 70, a former industrial engineer, climbed down off the retirement shelf five years ago and rolled up his sleeves to see what he could do about it. Now he's on a first-name basis with, and speed-dialed into, any number of GOP candidates who could very well wind up being president of the United States.

For the record, Dugan says he invited all the GOP presidential candidates this year but only Trump, Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzStephen Hawking: Trump a 'demagogue' Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals Meet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker MORE, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore decided to attend.

Keeping their distance: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina RSVPed for the event but apparently changed her mind at the last minute, said Dugan.

Like most of his fellow Tea Partyers, Dugan simultaneously vents steam from his eyeballs and ears when he talks about so-called conservatives whom he says speak the Tea Party language during election cycles but then quickly become part of the Washington insider club. When I ask him if he has any concerns that Trump might forget about his Tea Party friends if he gets to the White House, Dugan confidently cuts me off, saying it would never happen. President-elect or not, Dugan says Trump has already promised him he'd return to the Tea Party convention again next year.

 

During Saturday's session before a packed room, Cruz received a robust reaction to an impressive, note-free defense of his record in Washington, focusing on national security, the convention’s theme. Later, toward the evening, with Cruz long gone, Trump ended his standard, take-no-prisoners stump speech with a few sidebar references to Cruz receiving that $1 million loan from Goldman Sachs. Trump, hearing some boos and catcalls from Cruz supporters scattered throughout the room, quickly wrapped up his speech and left.

Despite the potential backfire within the Tea Party ranks of his attack-Cruz strategy, Trump seems to have this ability to be able to excite folks who would never think of attending a political meeting, Tea Party or otherwise.

Leaving the Springmaid Beach Resort on his way to the airport and his private jet, Trump was greeted outside by about 100 motorcycle riders who call themselves "Bikers for Trump." These decidedly non-tea-drinking bikers — whose unofficial home base is a bar a few miles south of here — just showed up because they knew Trump was in town. It's hard imagining any of the other candidates, Tea Party favorites or not, inspiring that kind of spontaneous combustion.

Carson also received a healthy reaction from the Tea Partyers this year, but he didn't appear until Monday, when the crowd had fallen off a little. So it's a little difficult figuring out where he currently fits into the mix.

Tea Party chief Dugan said he purposely does not conduct a straw poll during the convention in order to keep the event more substantive and issue-based. Not having any such moral parameters, as I left the event on Monday afternoon I unsuccessfully tried to bribe a young Tea Partyer at the front door to see which campaign buttons were selling the best. Dugan has his people trained pretty well.

On Saturday night, after convention activities had ended for the day, a sizable group of younger Tea Partyers trekked over to Myrtle Beach's legendary Barrel Bar just a mile from Springmaid. A few of my spies at the Barrel told me they heard a lot of buzz about both Trump and Cruz, but gave the edge to The Donald. Apparently, the Trump supporters were a little louder and aggressive, too. (Go figure.)

I will stay on the story and get back to you after I spend a little more time conducting some scientific polls and, of course, developing my spy network down at the biker bar.

Mills is a freelance writer living in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He is the co-author, with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, of The New York Times bestseller "Special Heart." He can be reached at jimmills2@gmail.com.

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