Conservatives who oppose comprehensive immigration reform are delighted Donald Trump has brought the issue to the fore in the GOP presidential race. They want to believe it's Trump's stand on immigration that is driving his popularity.
But talks with people who came to a recent Republican event in South Carolina are a reminder that voters, when evaluating candidates, are usually looking for a set of personal qualities more than a position on any single issue. If those qualities are there, they believe, the issues will work themselves out later.
The event was the Faith and Freedom Barbecue in Anderson, S.C., hosted by the conservative Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan and featuring appearances by Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker.
Before the speeches, I talked with perhaps two dozen voters. Many volunteered the name of their favorite candidate, but most seemed to have a short list of favorites they were considering.
I asked them some variation of this question: There are so many candidates. As you try to evaluate them, what's the most important thing to you? It could be an issue, like the economy or immigration, or a personal quality, like integrity, but what's the most important thing?
Not one said immigration. In fact, with one exception, none mentioned any issues at all. (One woman said education.) Instead, they were all looking for a set of attributes, and a clear set of values, in the man or woman they support for president.
"Can we trust them?" asked Claire Muzal of Seneca, S.C. "If you can trust them, they'll make the right decision at the right time."
"Two things resonate with me," said Michael Middleton, a retired Marine major from Greenville. "Being a commander in chief and following the law."
"Honesty, I would say, but also a tremendous ability to communicate," said Keith Tripp of Laurens, S.C.
"Somebody who is a social conservative, an economic conservative, and stands for the Constitution," said Tom Wild of Anderson. "And then I'm looking for the integrity that would go with that. And then: Can the person lead?"
"Character," said Kathy Hulsey of Anderson.
"I can't sum it up in one thing," said Hulsey's husband Wes. "It's really a composite of social and fiscal conservatism, and somebody who does not become institutionalized once they go to Washington, does not become part of the machine."
"What's the one characteristic?" Kathy asked Wes.
"Character, if you have to sum it up," he answered.
They were all over the map in terms of which candidate they supported — the names mentioned most often were Carson, Trump, Cruz and Walker, with the occasional Rubio and Fiorina. There wasn't a single mention of Jeb Bush all night.
Several who support other candidates are happy to have Trump in the race. "I like that Trump is in there," said Peggy Leone of Ft. Mill, S.C., who said she is leaning toward supporting Cruz or Carson. "Trump is shaking things up and making people say things that they probably wouldn't normally say. I don't know that I can vote for Trump yet — but he speaks the truth, and sometimes the truth is kind of crazy."
"I will confess, Trump is awfully attractive, because he says what a lot of us are thinking," said Harv Rettberg, who has long supported Scott Walker. "I'm torn right now," Rettberg added, "because [Walker] is not demonstrating the charisma that Trump brings."
"We like Trump because of — because," said Jim Sullivan of Charleston, speaking for himself and wife Margaret. Sullivan added that Walker, Cruz, Carson and Fiorina are also on their short list, but Trump attracts notice because "he's entertaining, he's smart, he has a fresh attitude and he pushes back against the media."
"I think Trump is hysterical," said Nancy Allen of Shelby, N.C., there with husband Henry. "He's funny. I watched him at the football stadium. But we've supported Ted Cruz."
"He's just fun," said Kathy Hulsey of Trump.
Certainly some of the things voters said about Trump — like he makes people say things they wouldn't normally say — could be in direct references to his stand on immigration. But the voters in South Carolina are looking for something bigger than just one issue.
To the degree that they are drawn to Trump — and Trump is leading the GOP polls in South Carolina as he is everywhere else — it is not because of a stand on any particular issue, but because Trump seems bigger, stronger and more of a leader than the rest of the Republicans in the race. He makes everyone else look small.
Yes, people at the Faith and Freedom Barbecue think very highly of Cruz, Carson, Walker, Fiorina, Rubio and other Republican candidates. But to get ahead, they'll have to go beyond the issues and demonstrate the leadership qualities voters want to see.