CHARLESTON, S.C. - Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, launched her presidential campaign here just over a month ago, calling for a "new generation" to lead and highlighting her background as an Indian American woman while also rejecting "identity politics."
Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate - appointed by Haley more than 10 years ago - kicked off a cross-country tour from Charleston the very next day, centering on his family's "cotton to Congress" story and declaring, "America is not defined by our original sin."
On Saturday, Haley and Scott converged again in Charleston ahead of a potential 2024 clash, joining other current and possible GOP presidential candidates for a public forum hosted by the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative Christian group. The event showcased contenders' pitches to an important constituency in a pivotal early-primary state.
It also brought together two South Carolina Republicans who have worked together and could end up fighting for a similar 2024 lane - though Scott's plans are not yet clear. Republicans in the Palmetto State emphasize that no matter who gets in, there will be stiff competition for South Carolina's voters.
"It's absolutely possible for (Donald) Trump or Ron DeSantis to win in South Carolina even with a senator or a former governor on the ballot here," said Alex Stroman, a former executive director of the state GOP. He said candidates hoping to do well there must first "prove" themselves with strong showings in New Hampshire or Iowa, which Haley and Scott have visited recently.
Plenty of 2024 contenders have flocked to South Carolina and courted its evangelical leaders. Other speakers at the "Vision '24" forum on Saturday included declared GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author who rallied the crowd Saturday against what he calls "wokeism," and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who told the audience to "stay tuned" for an April announcement about whether he will run for president.
Former president Donald Trump, who launched his 2024 campaign last fall, did not attend, nor did DeSantis, the Florida governor likely to join the race. Several others mulling 2024 runs, such as former vice president Mike Pence, were also absent. Pence has built deep ties in the evangelical community and gave his first public speech after leaving office at a dinner hosted by the Palmetto Family Council, a nonprofit that advocates for policy.
The Vision '24 forum also featured Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), as well as Tulsi Gabbard, a former Hawaii congresswoman who ran for president as a Democrat in 2020 but left the party last year.
Scott and Haley
Scott and Haley both entered and exited the stage to standing ovations and reprised their messages from recent events. Scott raised the room's energy as he paced the floor, denouncing those who call the Constitution a "sexist, racist, outdated document" and try to get people "hooked on the drug of victimhood." He pointed to his grandfather who "believed in the goodness of what America would one day be" despite the discrimination of Jim Crow.
"We've gotta stop this national self-loathing of people saying America's bad or it's rotten or the fact that it's racist," Haley echoed in a speech that directly followed Scott's. "You elected me, the first female minority governor in history - America's not racist, we're blessed!"
Asked about the possibility of Haley and Scott both running in 2024, attendee Grace McBride just said, "I hope they're on the same ticket." She was also a DeSantis fan.
"I'm disappointed that more people didn't show up," said McBride, a retiree from Summerville, S.C.
People who know Haley and Scott characterized their relationship as friendly and noted they have worked together extensively over the years - including in 2015 when a white supremacist killed nine people at a historic Black church in Charleston.
Haley was governor; Scott started his political career on the Charleston County Council and later served in Congress before Haley appointed him to replace Sen. Jim DeMint in 2012. Haley soon signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, a controversial and nationally watched decision that Scott also backed.
Both Scott and Haley were willing to "go have uncomfortable conversations in places where Republicans don't traditionally go and feel comfortable having conversations," said Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman at the time.
Stroman, who worked with both Haley and Scott at the state party and has not endorsed anyone for 2024, noted differences in what they bring to the table: Haley, he said, has served in an executive role, while Scott has a legislative background. Haley is taking advantage of being the first Republican to officially jump in the race against Trump, he added.
"Voters in South Carolina know Nikki Haley," said Stroman, who attended her launch event in Charleston. As voters in Iowa and New Hampshire get to know her too, he said, "she's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
Scott, meanwhile, has kept his plans under wraps while spending time in early primary states. He already has significant financial resources he could draw on for a presidential bid, with more than $20 million in his Senate campaign account at the end of last year and $13 million in a super PAC with extensive funding from Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
In South Carolina, where Haley and Scott have overlapping donors, some Republicans are already picking sides.
Scott is "a political mover and shaker that tries to help people find middle ground, and I just think that that's what this country needs more than anything right now," said South Carolina businessman Mikee Johnson, who also counts Haley as a good friend and serves as vice chair of a nonprofit she founded.
When Haley called him seeking support for her presidential bid, he recounted, he said he would "wait to see which way Tim went."
Another donor who will back Scott if he runs, Chad Walldorf, said he's hopeful a "recent negative tone in the Republican Party has largely run its course" and that most Republicans feel "a polarizing message has not served us well."
But many GOP voters have cheered aggressive attacks on the political left, and Scott struck a combative tone in Iowa recently.
"A question the Republican Party and America will have to answer is, are we willing to support someone who is at his core a really nice, good person? . . . Politics is a sharp-elbowed endeavor where the nicest people don't always end up first," Walldorf said.