Anyone thinking that the Lowcountry’s tea party movement is becoming watered down was probably not among the hundreds who showed up Saturday to hear 1st Congressional District Republican hopefuls.

The two-hour event, sponsored by FreedomWorks and held inside the Charleston Area Convention Center, drew more than 300 people and all 16 GOP candidates — more than any other event so far in the run-up to the March 19 primary.

For some, the event marked their best chance to appeal to independent-minded conservatives and position themselves as the best fresh face among many in the crowded field.

For others, it was a chance to talk about their public service so far and their hopes for extending that service this year in Washington.

In the end, most every candidate received only polite applause, and none appeared to break out.

It was unclear how many in the audience were undecided and how many were there to show support. Former Charleston County Councilman Curtis Bostic had perhaps the most visible group of backers.

Afterward, Lee McVay of Ladson, said, “I’m still flabbergasted at 16 people running because it’s going to split the vote up.”

Barbara Lawson of Beaufort called the field “an embarrassment of riches,” adding, “There were at least five up there I could be comfortable with, possibly more.”

It was difficult for audience members to make comparisons, because while all 16 got to make one-minute opening and closing statements, only two at a time were called upon to answer a particular question.

Before the event, however, the candidates were interviewed by one of three separate panels of tea party, 9-12 Project and other conservative members.

Those attending got a score sheet ranking the candidates on a 1-5 scale, with five being the most supportive of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.

All candidates received between a 3.4 (Ric Bryant) and a 4.6 (former Dorchester Sheriff Ray Nash).

For some, Saturday was less about what the candidates said than how they said it.

Dennis Wenger of Goose Creek said he was looking at candidates’ mannerisms, “and they way they talked, whether I thought they were lawyering or playing to the crowd. I don’t like that. I want them to be honest.”

At times, state Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau and former Sen. John Kuhn of Charleston appeared the most feisty, often raising their voices to make a point.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, there was yet another sign Saturday that its establishment is lining up behind newcomer Elizabeth Colbert Busch in her primary battle against Ben Frasier.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina’s only Democratic congressman, announced his support for her, just a day after Charleston Mayor Joe Riley endorsed her.

Such clarity appears more elusive on the GOP side.

After Saturday’s event, Wenger said, “I’ve narrowed it down from about 16 to about five.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.