They came together to look for their next president, hoping to find him or her on the TV behind the bar.
About a dozen local Republicans gathered at Celebrations Bar and Grill at the Rock Hill Ramada Inn Wednesday night for a debate watch party – taking in three hours’ worth of 11 GOP presidential candidates debating on CNN. On screen, they jockeyed for the party’s nomination and the votes of the people at the other end of the table.
Charles Parker organized the Rock Hill gathering, similar to one he held in Fort Mill to watch the first debate in August. A fan of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, he watched the debate in his “Carson 2016” T-shirt.
Others watching the debate were like-minded. Sheila Reiland of Lake Wylie is part of Carson’s 2016 Committee in York County, the successor organization of the draft movement Run Ben Run. She said if Carson, the only African American in the race, could win 17 percent of the black vote in the general election, “he could win in a landslide.”
Carson – who came into debate night in second place in many polls – is one of three candidates in the race who have never held public office, along with frontrunner Donald Trump and California former CEO Carly Fiorina, who moved onto the main stage after last month’s debate.
For most of those who came out for the party Wednesday night, those were the candidates who go the most attention. Dennis Jowers of Rock Hill said he’s leaning toward Trump.
“He’s hawkish, but maybe we need someone who’s hawkish,” Jowers said, adding he wants a president who will stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, among other unfriendly foreign leaders. “With Obama, Putin can do anything he wants. If (Ronald) Reagan was president, Putin wouldn’t bark without permission.”
Jowers might take another look at Carson or Fiorina, but “the rest of them don’t have the gas to go nowhere.”
At the end of the night, Patrick Donlon of Davidson, N.C., said he was still “full-fledged behind Carson,” because he “will get us back to basic values in this country.
“Fiorina, Rubio and Cruz are probably the other ones who resonated with me,” he said. “But I think Trump’s going to self-destruct. He takes everything so personal and calls people names, and I don’t think people are going to respond to that going forward.”
Many said they didn’t like the debate format, where 11 of the 16 major candidates competed for attention on the stage. Eric Bostic, who majored in political science at Winthrop University, said he was disappointed by “showmanship” over substance.
“Until the field gets narrowed down, you’re not going to get any substance,” he said. “They’re just going to play politics.”
Bostic said he leans toward the candidates he considered more substantive and seemingly moderate. He admires Ohio Gov. John Kasich for expanding Medicaid and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s support for Common Core education policies – both of which are unpopular among many Republican voters.
But then, Bostic admits, he leans more toward the Democrats. “I’m waiting to see if (Vice President Joe) Biden is going to jump into the race.”
But what all agreed is that Republican voters have a lot of choices to go over before they head to the ballot box next winter. Bostic summed it up by saying he agreed with how former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee characterized the GOP’s slate of candidates earlier in the evening.
“They do have the A-Team here,” he said.