|Republican hopefuls Rick Santorum, left, and Newt Gingrich are courting Tea Party supporters [GALLO/GETTY]
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina - While a recent poll finds the Tea Party losing popularity nationwide, South Carolina is still fertile ground for the decentralised, conservative movement that emerged on the political scene in 2009.
In an indication of how influential the Tea Party is considered to be in South Carolina, several prominent state Republicans - governor Nikki Haley, treasurer Curtis Loftis, attorney general Alan Wilson, and four of the state's six congressmen - all spoke at the South Carolina Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach last weekend.
Two Republican presidential candidates, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, also spoke at the convention in an attempt to charm the older, heavily white crowd of about 300.
While Santorum portrayed himself as a "conviction conservative, someone who is conservative not just on one issue and not just on one time", Gingrich's speech - which focussed on President Obama, whom he called "the most radical president in the history of the United States" - drew an even greater applause.
With South Carolina's Republican primary just a few days away, Tea Partiers remain split over which candidate to support. Five major Republican contenders are still in the running: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry.
Romney, who has already won in Iowa and New Hampshire, is the front-runner - but is also regarded as the most moderate candidate. He's currently leading polls in South Carolina by about ten percentage points.
Romney does have some support among Tea Party-affiliated politicians in the state: Haley and Loftis have both endorsed the former Massachusetts governor.
But many Tea Partiers at the convention viewed Romney as insufficiently conservative, citing his earlier support of abortion and his role in overhauling Massachusetts' health insurance laws. "He's part of the establishment," said Paul Grimm of Myrtle Beach. And Bill Conley, who's active with the Spartanburg Tea Party, added that, "within the Tea Party, it's almost anyone but Romney".
With the state's more conservative Republicans divided between several different camps - Gingrich and Santorum seeming to be the most popular - it seems likely that Romney will take the lead in the primary.
‘Join or die'
To Michael George, a speaker at the convention, nominating Romney is futile. A former Herman Cain supporter, George told the crowd that he now backs Gingrich, and encouraged other Tea Partiers to unite around the former Speaker of the House as a conservative alternative to Romney. "If you don't support Newt, it's a vote for Romney," he asserted. "But Romney's going to lose to Obama, there's no doubt about it."
"It's time to join or die," concluded George, showing an image of a Revolutionary War-era flag bearing the same phrase.
The Tea Party is a relatively decentralised movement, and some attendees resented being told how to vote by George. "You don't speak for us," Ann Ubelis, a Tea Party supporter, said.
"The Tea Party will not let anybody to tell us who to vote for!" said another, loudly.
And one man shouted out, "Vote for who you choose! It's your own choice. The battle cry is ABO [anyone but Obama]!"
The outcry caused George to retreat: He admitted that "[Gingrich's] list of crimes is huge", but stressed his belief that Gingrich is the only Republican candidate who could effectively debate President Obama.
A large contingent at the convention also backed Rick Santorum, the most outspokenly conservative candidate on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Although Bill Conley admires Gingrich, whom he says is "very strong" and "intelligent", he intends to vote for Santorum because he wants "somebody who over a long period of time has said the same thing."
Frank Duncan, a Santorum supporter, also mentioned the former Pennsylvania senator's record. "He's got baggage like the rest of them, but he seems to be someone consistent. He's Christian."
But not all Tea Partiers are thrilled about Gingrich or Santorum. One attendee, Ronald Moulder of Barnwell County, says that although none of the Republican candidates are perfect, he plans on voting for Ron Paul.
"If you don’t support Newt, it’s a vote for Romney. But Romney’s going to lose to Obama, there’s no doubt about it."
– Michael George, founder of Strong America Now
"He's having a hard time with the Republican Party over his foreign policy," Moulder told Al Jazeera. "They think it's crazy. I think it's dead-on. We've been at war since 1946 when the Second World War ended, if you think about it."
His stance, however, seemed to be a minority position at the convention: Many Tea Partiers stressed the need to maintain an active military presence overseas.
Anyone but Obama
If there is one thing that Tea Parities seem to agree about, it's their feelings about Democratic President Barack Obama.
While most Republicans in the US have little regard for Obama, Tea Partiers distinguish themselves from other Republicans by refusing to make any compromises with a president whom they frequently refer to as a socialist or a Marxist.
They often see gridlock in Congress as positive because it means that legislation favoured by Democrats will not get signed into law. As Texas minister and Republican activist put it to the crowd at the convention, "If nothing gets done in Washington…good!"
Claver used strident rhetoric to warn against any kind of deal-making with liberals. "If you compromise with a murderer, you become the victim of genocide. If you compromise with a tyrant, you end up losing all of your God-given liberties."
Another speaker, Colin Heaton, compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, implying that both were socialists.
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But Tea Partiers didn't reserve their fire for Democrats. South Carolina congressman Mick Mulvaney criticised the last Republican president, too. "Barack Obama put fire to the gasoline," he said. "But it was George Bush who put it out there with the spending and the debt."
Lachlan McIntosh, a Democratic political consultant based in Charleston, said he thinks that "the Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party in South Carolina."
They've certainly sent a message to more moderate Republicans in the state: In 2010, Bob Inglis - a Republican who had served in Congress for six terms - was defeated by Trey Gowdy, a Tea Party-backed candidate, in a landslide. "They [the Tea Party] are scaring to death most of the Republicans in the state," said McIntosh.
Ronald Moulder considers that the Tea Party has shifted the terms of debate within the Republican Party. "The Constitution, balanced budgets, sound monetary policy - they [mainstream Republicans] weren't even talking about these things five years ago. People like us in the Tea Party are making them talk about it."
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier
Source: Al Jazeera