GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump picked up a key endorsement Wednesday just before telling a crowd of hundreds, crammed into a Lexington County barn, that he would not become another Republican who goes along with the status quo in Washington.
“The Republicans are making it impossible,” Trump said in Gilbert, wearing what has become his iconic red trucker hat. “We know where the Democrats are coming from. The problem is these Republican we send to Congress, and they’re hollering, ‘We’re going to stop Obamacare. We’re going to fight ISIS.’
“But, all of a sudden, they get to Washington and they look at the angels on the ceiling (of the U.S. Capitol), they look at the beautiful columns, they look at the beautiful marble floors and they keep rising their hands. What happened to them? That’s not going to happen to me.”
After receiving a surprise endorsement from S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, Trump went through the list of issues typical of his rallies, punctuated with how he is an outsider who would bring his business experience to the White House. He criticized the nuclear deal with Iran, bemoaned losing money and business to China, called for strengthening the military to fight terrorists and promised a wall on the border with Mexico.
“The only way they come through the wall is that they come through legally,” he said, receiving applause from the crowd at Harmon’s Tree Farm.
Trump also continued attacks on his GOP competitors.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was knocked for having debt. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was hit for spending among the most money in the campaign without topping the polls.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the second-place contender, was zinged for being born in Canada to an American mother. “How can a guy run for office when he’s got this cloud over his head?” Trump asked, rhetorically.
And Trump talked about polls — especially how well he is doing in them nationally and early-primary states. He leads by more than 15 percentage points in South Carolina.
The New York real estate developer, who has no experience in political office, also kept mentioning how little money he has spent on the campaign compared to his competitors. “We spend the least and have the best,” he said in another line that drew applause.
Trump did not mention his decision to not take part in Thursday’s Republican debate in Iowa because of a feud with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and a tongue-in-cheek news release from the network.
Trump is continuing a tour touching major S.C. markets even as presidential voting starts Monday in Iowa.
He has visited Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in the past month, while stopping in Spartanburg, Charleston and Aiken during the month before that.
But Lexington County, one of the state’s biggest GOP strongholds, is a key to success in South Carolina. The county, just outside Columbia, was won by the GOP candidates who went on to victory in the party’s past two S.C. presidential primaries.
The stop at Harmon’s Tree Farm was a break from the arenas and large convention halls where Trump usually holds rallies. The stage included stacks of hay and a wooden wall backdrop. While adding the red trucker hat, Trump went without a tie.
In what could be the biggest shock in the S.C. primary this far, Trump received an endorsement Wednesday from McMaster, the second high-ranking S.C. politician to back a 2016 hopeful. McMaster’s endorsement of Trump was a surprise because the former state attorney general, U.S. attorney and S.C. GOP chairman is considered one of the top establishment members in the state party.
Much of the S.C. party’s establishment base has endorsed Bush in the GOP race after initially backing U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican who pulled out of the presidential race last month. Graham, the only other statewide politician to endorse a White House hopeful, also is backing Bush.
But it is Trump, who has run as the anti-politician-in-chief, who holds a large lead in S.C. polls. Bush is fourth.
“He’s a man of decision. He’s a man of action,” McMaster said in introducing Trump. “He speaks the truth as he see it in words everybody understands. And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s something unusual in politics. It’s a delightful thing to see.
“He has no hidden agenda, and the only obligation is to you, the people of the United States of America. He has great confidence in this country, and that comes out every time he speaks. He speaks of the greatness of the United States — how it was and how it can be again.”
McMaster, an ally of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, joins former state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, in backing Trump. Knotts, who like Trump built a reputation for saying what’s on his mind even it is not politically correct, is a Haley foe who once called the daughter of Indian immigrants a “raghead” on an Internet show. Knotts was defeated in 2012 by another Republican, Katrina Shealy, who received $139,000 in ads from a pro-Haley political group.
McMaster’s endorsement could affect his expected run for governor in 2018. In that race, the Richland County Republican will seek the backing of the state’s Republican establishment, as he had in other races. In a twist, McMaster lost to the upstart GOP candidate in the 2010 governor’s race, Haley.
“No one in SC politics is more disappointed than me,” tweeted Trey Walker, a former McMaster aide.
Two other GOP members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation have endorsed 2016 candidates. U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, is backing U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, has endorsed Rubio.
Haley, who is in her second term as governor, did not give a timetable for an endorsement Thursday, saying she does not need a long time to decide. “I don't work like that, where I plan really far ahead,” the governor told reporters. “It's usually once I make a decision, I go with it.”
But it does not appear Haley will join McMaster in backing Trump. She has criticized Trump’s combative campaigning three times, including in a nationally televised State of the Union response this month.
South Carolina holds its Republican presidential primary Feb. 20 after Iowa and New Hampshire.
GOP presidential debate
What: Last debate before the first votes of the 2016 primary season are cast Monday in Iowa
When: Thursday — main debate, 9 p.m.; “undercard” debate, 7 p.m.
Who: Main debate — Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio; Undercard — Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. (Front-runner Donald Trump has said he will not participate.)
Where: Iowa Events Center in Des Moines
TV: Fox News