MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — It was a full house at a South Carolina movie house Thursday night for a special show: the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 cycle.
The venue was perfect for a show with bombastic businessman Donald Trump. But in a crowd that, based on stickers and buttons, seemed to hew conservative, Trump, the leading candidate in the polls, got a decidedly mixed reception.
When Trump raised his hand at the opening as the only candidate refusing to commit to supporting whomever the Republican primary voters choose, he drew boos from the crowd. Surgeon Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, probably had the most dedicated supporters in the audience, with the cheers of support for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush being among the fewest and farthest between.
The crowd enjoyed the sparring more than any one candidate, responding to moments like the fisticuffs between Paul and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey about warrant-less surveillance programs, who said that as the U.S. attorney for the Garden State, he actually made use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Rep. Mark Sanford, the local congressman who was once the South Carolina governor, praised the event's organizers and the turnout of members of the public from different parts of the Republican coalition.
"We're not that far from pre-season football, and it's to a degree the same phenomenon," Sanford told CQ Roll Call. "The county chairman is looking for ways to bring folks together, and so as an organizing tool I think it is important at the county level."
That Charleston County chairman, Larry Kobrovsky, said he thought gatherings like Thursday's debate watch are important to bring Republicans who are transplants into the local structure.
Kobrovsky said he heard people who have moved from Ohio and New Jersey touting their respective incumbent governors, John R. Kasich and Christie.
"The upside of having so many candidates is you attract so many different types of Republicans, so as the chairman that's the best of all worlds because you want to increase our brand," he told CQ Roll Call. "We have an opportunity because all the attention is on our side and the Democrats not so much."
The Republican National Committee seemed to be thinking similarly, because the party said earlier Thursday it was involved in organizing more than 200 debate-watch parties across the country.
One thing that kept coming up during conversations during the Fox News commercial breaks and after the debate itself was how impressed the South Carolina audience members had been earlier in the evening watching former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, something Sanford had picked up on as well.
Fiorina's poll numbers didn't meet the criteria set by the debate organizers to be among the 10 on stage Thursday night, meaning she was relegated to a smaller contest earlier in the evening.
Comments from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee about Democratic front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton united the audience, like when Walker said during a response to a cybersecurity question that foreign hackers might know more about the private email server Clinton used than people in the United States.
By and large, though, the biggest winners at the audience at the Charleston GOP gathering were Megyn Kelly, Chris Wallace and Brett Baier.
"Reince Priebus was having a panic attack," one attendee said of what he guessed would be the reaction from the RNC chairman to the pointed questions the trio of moderators from the Fox News Channel in the opening segment.
When Kelly asked Trump "When did you actually become a Republican?" the GOP faithful offered one of their most positive reactions of the entire night.
Related: Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.