GREENVILLE, South Carolina | The co-founder of Tea Party of America abandoned Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump Tuesday and threw his backing to Jeb Bush in a striking move that suggests some softening in the GOP front-runner’s support among conservatives as the campaign shifts to South Carolina.
Ken Crow, who co-founded one of the first national tea party organizations in opposition to the policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, had been an outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump this election cycle, but told The Washington Times he’s become repulsed by the billionaire businessman and reality TV star’s volatile personality and crude antics on the stump.
“I was on the Trump train, but enough is enough,” Mr. Crow said in announcing his dizzying realignment. “When is Trump going to act like a president? The answer is he’s not.”
Mr. Crow harbored nagging doubts about Mr. Trump’s temperament and electability for some time, but he said he reached the breaking point last week when Mr. Trump called rival Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas a “pussy” during a rally, repeating the slur shouted out by a female audience member.
“Anyone who is unable to control his language in front of little old ladies and children is a problem for me,” said Mr. Crow, who has a history of breaking with fellow tea party leaders and quit Tea Party of America amid infighting.
Nevertheless, his switch of allegiance to Mr. Bush suggested strains within the grass-roots coalition propelling Mr. Trump’s unconventional but so far wildly successful run.
Trump campaign officials did not respond to questions about the defection.
He remains the dominant candidate in the Republican field, with the latest CNN/ORC poll Tuesday showing him at 38 percent support in South Carolina, well ahead of Mr. Cruz at 22 percent and Sen. Marco Rubio at 14 percent.
But CNN, which conducted the poll from Feb. 10-15, said Mr. Trump’s support softened after Saturday’s debate. Those polled before it gave him 40 percent support, but after the debate just 31 percent of those polled backed him.
In the debate Mr. Trump questioned former President Bush’s record on terror, saying he had to answer for being in office at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mr. Trump also accused Mr. Bush of lying about weapons of mass destruction to begin the Iraq War.
Those exchanges cost Mr. Trump the chance of winning support from Tom Rosenzweig, 56, who said his biggest issue is trying to control immigration from Muslim countries. That should have made him a natural for Mr. Trump, who has made a campaign promise to pause immigration by Muslims, but Mr. Rosenzweig said he “was totally turned off by what he did at the debate.”
“He struck out there, because I like George Bush,” said Mr. Rosenzweig, who said he’s now searching for a candidate. He was attending a rally for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in Greenville on Tuesday.
Elsewhere in South Carolina Mr. Cruz announced his plans to strengthen the military, including increasing the number of active-duty troops and boosting the inventory of ships and airplanes.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio also stepped up their own war of words, with each accusing the other of being untrustworthy. The two are fighting over second place here, with two establishment-backed candidates, Jeb Bush and Mr. Kasich, fighting to emerge as the more moderate anti-Trump candidate.
Many tea party activists here remain committed to Mr. Trump, but others shared disappointment that the businessman has not toned down as the campaign has worn on.
“I’ve become extremely frustrated,” said Ken Kreitz, a tea party activist who was an early supporter of Mr. Trump and helped open the Trump campaign office in his hometown of Myrtle Beach, but now doubts the real estate mogul can exercise discretion or act presidential.
“He’s just not wired that way,” he said.
Mr. Kreitz’s doubts started when Mr. Trump skipped the debate in Des Moines, Iowa, over a dispute with Fox News, which Mr. Kreitz called “childish.” Those misgivings solidified when Mr. Trump erupted at last weekend’s debate, calling Mr. Cruz a liar and launching his attack on former President Bush.
“When I get in that booth, I just don’t believe I’ll be able to pull for Trump,” said Mr. Kreitz, adding that he hears the same from many erstwhile Trump supporters and believes the primary results will be much closer than recent polls show.
The attacks on Mr. Bush’s presidential brother especially irked some of Mr. Trump’s supporters who are veterans and active military, said Ann Ubelis, a leader of the Beaufort Tea Party in Beaufort, South Carolina, a community with a large military population near Hilton Head Island.
“You shoot yourself in the foot by attacking a president that stood there at 9/11 and helped defend the nation,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of men and women here who were on duty on 9/11.”
Ms. Ubelis, who does not endorse in the primary, said she wouldn’t vote for Mr. Bush, but she had a more sympathetic view of him following Mr. Trump’s attacks. She said that she believed Mr. Trump “narrowed his lead” by accusing the former president of failing to keep America safe and intentionally misleading the country about weapons of mass destruction to justify the war.
Mr. Crow said that he has had conversations with Bush campaign officials about working to get more tea party voters to support Mr. Bush.
The Bush campaign did not respond to questions about Mr. Crow.
Reversing his longtime opposition to the Republican Party establishment, Mr. Crow said that Mr. Bush is the most electable and most presidential candidate remaining in the narrowing field. He also argued that Mr. Bush, who is routinely described as one of the more moderate Republicans in the race, is more conservative than he’s given credit for.
“He wants everything we want on the right,” said Mr. Crow. “He’s a quiet leader and he’s very prudent in his decision, and that’s what, quite frankly, I like about the guy.”
He called Mr. Bush tempered, intelligent and wise.
“He’s actually extremely intelligent and he’s gracious and he’s polite,” said Mr. Crow. “He’s got all the characteristics that we Americans want to see in a president. We don’t need a flamethrower in the Oval Office.”
⦁ S.A. Miller reported from Washington.