CHARLESTON, South Carolina -- Campaigning across this first-in-the-South primary state, Carly Fiorina encountered something unusual this week: empty seats.
Call it the Fiorina paradox: On the GOP debate stage, the former Hewlett-Packard executive often dominates the conversation, but out here on the campaign trail, she’s just treading water. Her crowds aren’t growing, and there’s noticeably less excitement, media, and attention than there was during a similar swing through the state two months ago after two show-stopping debate performances. Her polling numbers are dropping nationally, too, down from one-time second-place high to 3% or 4% in recent surveys.
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At a luncheon in Greenville, organizers said 175 tickets had been sold, but just over 130 people showed up on the rainy Monday morning after the Thanksgiving holiday. Later that day at a town hall in Anderson, a few dozen of the nearly 300 seats were left empty. The following day, lunches in Columbia and West Columbia, empty seats dotted the crowd. Later Tuesday evening, at a military-focused town hall event, volunteers struggled to find people to willing to sit behind the candidate and there were empty seats throughout the crowd.
Can Fiorina go the long haul if she can't fill a room in an early voting state?
“I don’t know about that,” one supporter, Warner Wells, told MSNBC in West Columbia. “But when she is on that podium with those men, she holds her own.”
For her part, FIorina pushes back against the idea that her bid is faltering.
“You know that when I started nobody gave me a chance. Now I’m on the main debate stage and I’m going to stay on that stage,” Fiorina told MSNBC after an event in West Columbia.
Asked about her dropping polling numbers, Fiorina added, “When Gallup, a respected polling organization, says they’re not going to engage in horse race polling because it’s so suspect, I think that tells you everything you need to know. We know for a fact that polls at this point at this point in a presidential race are absolutely not predictive.”
Pressed again by a local radio host on Wednesday morning who bemoaned her polling despite her strong debate performances, Fiorina rejected the narrative again.
"I've come further than most people expected, and I'm going to go the distance," she said.
To hear some of her supporters tell it, treading water may well be the strategy: according to Stephen DeMaura, the head of CARLY for America, the super PAC boosting her bid, they’re not looking for a surge ahead of Iowa, but rather to be the last candidate standing. The PAC – which is doing nearly all the ground organizing for Fiorina – is planning a 27 state strategy, not a four state one, DeMaura said.
“Survive and move on, survive and move on,” he said, articulating their early-state plan. DeMaura said that through the PAC’s voter identification work, voters often call Fiorina their second or third choice and believe she will rise as others fall away, rising as the field narrows. The PAC's research, DeMaura said, shows she’s well suited to pick up support from the fading Ben Carson and other candidates struggling for traction.
On the trail, there’s occasional sparks of potential: Her final South Carolina event was well-attended, drawing employees from local credit unions to see her speak morning. In Anderson, a slew of young people showed up cheering and waving signs as the candidate walked on stage as if it the town hall were a rally.
“I’m in love with her,” Mikayla Bridges, 18, told MSNBC. “I thought I was gonna be on the Hillary train, but nope.”
And just as she does in the debates, Fiorina can impress on the trail: her stabs at humor draw laughs and she gets plenty of applause. In interviews, attendees told MSNBC again and again that they were impressed—they just weren’t sure yet.
“She’s one of my top three,” Lin Bennett told MSNBC in Charleston, adding that she was considering Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz – a sentiment echoed by many attendees at Fiorina’s events in South Carolina this week.
“There’s just so many, it’s hard,” Jay Lloyd said but said Fiorina had impressed him at the town hall that night.
Enough to be shortlisted? “Yeah, I’d say as of tonight she is.”