IRVING, Texas — Ben Carson’s campaign may be flagging, but he can still attract a Texas crowd.
One hundred or so of the supporters who showed up for his Saturday event at a DFW airport hotel were denied entrance because of fire code restrictions on capacity. Before his remarks, Carson emerged and spoke to the followers who couldn't get in.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have enough room for everybody to get into the venue, but that’s a good problem to have,” Carson said to the overflow crowd at the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party's gathering.
These Carson backers were mostly realistic about their candidate's uphill climb for the Republican nomination. But they remain committed to him — many already cast early ballots — because, they say, he is the last honest candidate running for president.
But also, over and over in conversations, members of this racially diverse, mostly evangelical crowd expressed revulsion toward the other GOP candidates, including home-state U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cathy Singleton, a Frisco flight attendant, has admired Carson since she heard him speak at an event in Branson, Missouri.
“I think he has a big shot. We were discussing it earlier today,” she said gesturing to her husband, James. “So far, he is the only candidate we haven’t caught in a lie. I don’t like to vote for people that have lied consistently. He’s an honest campaigner.”
Singleton confirmed her comments alluded to Cruz’s recent campaign turbulence: accusations that his campaign deceived Iowa Republicans into believing Carson was dropping out of the race there and charges that a Cruz staffer shared an online video that falsely purported to show U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida making a negative comment about the Bible.
“Before that, I was looking at some of the other candidates thinking, 'Yeah, well, you know, maybe,'” she said. “But if someone’s going play that dirty with someone in their own party, they’re going to do that to anyone.”
This could be a significant problem for Cruz just three days before the March 1 Texas primary. There is no group he spent more effort courting over the last year than evangelicals. His campaign’s aim was to expand from that base as the field winnowed.
Over the past few days, the momentum in Texas seems to have shifted to real estate magnate Donald Trump, after disappointing Cruz finishes in the South Carolina and Nevada contests. If there is any place in Texas Cruz needs support, it’s in the strongly conservative Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.
But here at this Northeast Tarrant County event, Carson supporters remain resolute, although many appear well aware that any vote for him could be going toward a lost cause. And they are withholding their support from Cruz.
Texas is the most important state to Cruz, but Trump, who has little political infrastructure here and in other Super Tuesday states, continued in recent days to steal headlines.
Texas delegates will be awarded proportionally, and Cruz hopes to run up his numbers here to offset Trump gains elsewhere. Texas' junior senator has led in all of the public polls of voters in his home state, but some political consultants and operatives are beginning to speculate that he might not finish first on Tuesday.
As a result, Cruz needs every Texas evangelical vote he can get.
The Carson supporters who gathered Saturday showed no bias for the Texas candidate. The overriding sentiment expressed was disillusionment.
Beyond accusations of campaigning, the caustic exchanges between Cruz, real estate magnate Donald Trump and Rubio in recent GOP presidential debates wore on these voters.
Repeatedly, they described the Republican field as devolving into a “circus." Carson acknowledged. “It’s very interesting, the other night at the debate, at least that’s what they called it ...” he said to laughter.
“Afterwards, I went into the spin room, and there were a lot of international reporters,” he added. “The first question that all of them always ask is, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed? Isn’t your nation embarrassed for this kind of show that’s going on?’”
Carolyn Nelson is a retired educator and real estate agent from Irving. She said she voted early for Carson because he serves as a positive contrast to the “bullish stupid activities that’s going on with the other candidates.”
“I have no anger toward him,” she said of Cruz. “But I have no trust in him at all. He makes me nervous. I think he is dishonest. I thought he was dishonest before Trump called him a liar. I just would not vote for him."
Linton Davis is an operations manager at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth plant. He called Cruz “a politician,” as if the term was an ad hominem attack.
“The thing that makes Ted a politician is ... not what he says, but the way he says it and the things he will do,” he said. “He plays dirty pool ... There’s a sense with Ted that it's an ends-justifies-the-means-type attitude.”
“You don’t get that with Dr. Carson,” he added. “Dr. Carson will never sell his integrity for his office.”
Nelson, the retired educator, said she already cast her vote for Carson. But she said some of her friends drifted away from her candidate.
“Initially, there were a lot of people who supported Ben Carson in my circle,” she said. “But most aren’t concerned about losing the vote. So they have abandoned him. But in a general election they will certainly support him.”
Which candidate did they mostly end up supporting?
“Mostly Rubio,” she said.