GREENVILLE, South Carolina – The conservative activists who came to see a host of GOP candidates speak at Heritage Action’s Take Back America Conference are still struggling to pick their candidate from the crowd. But after two debates, they are starting to whittle it down.
Thousands gathered for the event, co-hosted by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Heritage Action President Jim DeMint, and Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham, to watch candidates take 25 minutes of detailed questions on policy and tactics.
Most of Wednesday's debate contenders showed up to court the influential crowd in key primary state South Carolina, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
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Few attendees who spoke to MSNBC had a 100% definite choice yet, but almost everyone seemed to have a Big Three. And a lot of those Big Three lists had changed since Wednesday’s debate, with many telling MSNBC that Fiorina had moved up after her widely praised performance.
“It’s Carly, Cruz, and Carson,” local student Zack Daniels, 20, said. “Trump moved out and Carly moved in. He just didn’t have set answers as to how he would do what he wanted.”
For Ron Golden, 63, the new Big Three were “Carson, Rubio and the female.” Rubio and Fiorina each impressed him with on Wednesday with their in-depth remarks on foreign policy. “They didn’t need to think, they had the answer ready right there,” he said.
"Trump, Cruz, and Fiorina,” Wade Peeler, 49, of Spartanburg told MSNBC. “Fiorina moved up between the last debate and now. She's intelligent and to-the-point and I haven’t seen her B.S. a question yet."
The former HP executive earned a standing ovation at the event calling for a government shutdown fight to defund Planned Parenthood.
“It is not about whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life, we cannot be a nation that funds this kind of barbarity," she said.
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Heritage Action’s fans are not exactly a perfect cross-section of the GOP. The group is known for its clashes with Republican leaders with Congress, who it often pushes to take a harder line in confrontations over spending and the debt limit – it’s currently pushing for a shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood funding. As is often the case at conferences held by more anti-establishment groups, the crowd tends to gravitate towards grassroots favorites like Carson and Cruz, both of whom earned wild applause of their own on Friday.
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Waiting in line outside the event, Tim Timmerman, 73, argued politely with Carlene Brown, 71, a Carson volunteer, over whether the neurosurgeon was “too quiet” in the debates to be an effective nominee.
"Look, I've donated to five candidates already,” Timmerman said. “I got to start winnowing it down."
One candidate who fell off Timmerman’s list on similar grounds was Walker, whose lackluster debate performance is the latest addition to his campaign struggles.
"I gave earlier to our friend from Wisconsin, but he's disappointed me,” he said. “He needed to get in there and fight in that debate.”
Robert Shapiro, an activist with Heritage, said he donated to Walker’s Wisconsin campaigns but had lost faith in his national potential over time as well.
“There's something about those Midwestern governors. Tim Pawlenty faded very quickly in 2012 too,” Shapiro said. “They might just be too nice."
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Shapiro’s new favorite after Wednesday’s debate? Fiorina. “She’s the only one who’s been able to stand up to Donald Trump so far,” he said.
Walker earned a decent reception from the crowd on Friday at least, where he said he would “absolutely” support a government shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood and argued that President Obama hadn’t done enough to praise police officers after the shooting of a Houston officer.
"The men and women who wear the badge are doing the right thing every day, all the time,” Walker said.
Marie Hall, 39 looked to Friday’s lengthy grill sessions to help pare down her candidate list after struggling to evaluate the field through snippets of TV coverage.
“I used to think nominating a businessman might be good, but I can’t stand Trump,” she said. “He’s just -- uuuurrgggh!”
Trump had plenty of fans and detractors alike in the audience, but they didn’t get a chance to watch him in action after he pulled out from the event at the last minute. His campaign said in a statement that he needed to attend to business negotiations, which earned some gentle ribbing from Carson onstage. After the audience sang “Happy Birthday” for the doctor, he joked that the best present was Trump “dropping out” of the race.
“Oh,” he continued. “That was just for one day.”