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Conservative activists see opportunity as Romney and Bush go to war

At the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, conservative activists see an opening to nominate one of their own in 2016.

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina -- Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie aren’t exactly popular names at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention.

“Christie lost weight, but that just means he can hug Obama even closer,” Joe Dugan, who organized the conference, told msnbc. “Romney was a poor candidate and ran a terrible campaign.” 

That doesn’t mean attendees are unhappy to see them running, however. After watching Romney grind his way to the nomination in 2012 against a rotating cast of underfunded conservative challengers, tea party activists are hopeful that the reverse dynamic might occur in 2016. If Bush, Romney, Christie, and other Republicans popular with big donors end up splitting the moderate vote and training their super PAC dollars on each other, there may be an opening for one of their favored candidates to sneak their way to the convention. 

RELATED: The Tea Party convenes in South Carolina

“We want [Marco] Rubio in, we want Christie in, we want Bush in, we want Romney in, that would be great,” Vernon Robinson, campaign director of a national effort to draft Ben Carson for a 2016 run, told msnbc. “It’s better to have eight liberal Republicans than one.”

A split establishment field only takes care of half the problem, however. They also need to settle on a champion of their own and the anti-establishment field may be even more crowded in 2016 than it was in 2012.

“Everyone is going to have to start coalescing behind one or two candidates as they go towards the finish line in the primary to really get enough votes,” Rob Maness, a Senate candidate in Louisiana last year, told msnbc.

On Sunday, Carson and Senator Ted Cruz, both likely candidates, addressed the conference. Rick Santorum, the runner-up against Romney in 2012, will speak on Monday. Other candidates who could potentially make a play for social conservatives, libertarians, and tea partiers include Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker.

RELATED: Can Cruz consolidate the tea party?

Carson described his mother’s struggle to keep her children out of poverty to make the case he knew how to restrain social spending and criticized President Obama’s new proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund tax benefits for working and middle class Americans.

“I’m sure he’s going to talk about these rich people and how horrible they are and some of them are horrible,” Carson said. “But I know a lot of horrible poor people too. I know a lot of horrible people, period, and it has nothing to do with their income.”

Making his case, Cruz urged activists to resist the “mushy middle” of past Republican nominees Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

 “If we nominate another candidate in that mold, the same people who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016 and the Democrats will win again,” Cruz said. 

As Cruz alluded to, some attendees said they felt resigned to defeat after backing insurgent Republicans in the last two presidential campaigns.

“I know how this story ends,” Peggie Bushey, a local activist with the Republican Liberty Caucus, sighed to msnbc. “We can stamp our feet and cry and beg, but the establishment gets who it wants.”

One speaker, author Bill Finley, went out of his way to chastise audience members who complained the powers that be in the party would dominate the nominating process.

“There is no room for talk like that on a winning team,” he said.

It’s not at all clear who will emerge from the field as the GOP’s top tea partier in 2016. Some prospective GOP candidates like Perry, Walker, Pence, and Rubio could plausibly lay claim to establishment and grassroots support alike and Romney actually performed surprisingly well with tea party voters in 2012 (his weak spot was evangelicals). 

Asked what will most distinguish the true blue conservatives from the Washington squishes in 2016, Dugan offered up a quick answer: “Amnesty.”  

Obama’s recent executive action to protect undocumented immigrants has been one of the top issues at the conference so far, with speakers garnering standing ovations decrying illegal immigration. Bush and Rubio have been strong advocates for passing legislation granting a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants while Romney’s more hardline “self deportation” position on the issue helped tank his standing with Hispanic voters in 2012.