(WASHINGTON) — “Do you think you’re not too nice to do the job that needs to get done?”
That was the question that had been on 70-year-old JoElla Duprey’s mind since she first heard Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott, South Carolina’s junior senator, speak earlier this summer.
Last Thursday, in a crowded room in a town hall at a hotel in the sleepy town of Ottumwa, Iowa, she finally got the chance to ask.
“I appreciate people thinking I’m nice,” Scott joked in response. “You have to be tough to get out of some of the neighborhoods where I grew up … being tough is easy. The question we have not asked, especially as a party is, ‘Is tough enough?'”
Scott is betting voters want a president who is more than just tough. His sunnier, more preacherly style — and penchant for avoiding the kinds of personal battles that helped catapult front-runner Donald Trump to the head of their party — often charms small audiences. But it has nonetheless seen him struggle to hold the spotlight in a crowded field.
At the first Republican presidential debate, in Milwaukee in August, Scott had the third lowest amount of speaking time out of the eight candidates on stage, according to tracker by The New York Times: 8 minutes and 15 seconds.
At one point, while answering a question on climate change, the time bell went off before he was able to get out his answer.
“I’m a Southern boy — I talk slow,” he laughed off before the bell dinged again.
As other candidates at the debate sought out onstage spats or threw jabs to highlight their differences in policy and style — as when former Vice President Mike Pence labeled rival Vivek Ramaswamy a “rookie” — Scott declined to go on the attack.
His campaign told ABC News afterward that they were “very happy” with how he did and that Americans watching would appreciate Scott staying out of “childish” bickering.
Duprey, the Iowa voter, didn’t watch the debate, only catching snippets of it from the news afterwards. She told ABC News that “just because you’re nice doesn’t mean that you’re not strong.”
Still, Scott’s performance seemed to miss the mark with voters: Although fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley only spoke for some 30 seconds more than Scott, only about 5% of respondents said he won the debate while 15% said Haley did, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos/Washington Post poll.
And while Scott has scored better in some surveys of the first two voting states in the primary, Iowa and New Hampshire — regularly earning third or fourth place — he is in the low single digits in an average of national polls so far, according to FiveThirtyEight.
By comparison, Trump is at about 54% nationally and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is at about 14%.
At a “Politics and Pie” event after the debate, Scott acknowledged that “following the rules does not give you more time,” he told the audience. “So, lesson learned. Now, the next debate, I’m going to remember that lesson, but I’m also going to comport myself in the same fashion.”
Despite some reports that Scott may be reassessing his strategy to become more aggressive with other candidates, his campaign says he’s staying the course.
“Tim was disappointed by the other candidates on the debate stage and their unwillingness to advocate for life [by opposing abortion] and stand with our allies. While other candidates were engaged in a food fight, Tim was focused on beating [President Joe] Biden and defending the values our nation was founded on,” campaign spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement. “Tim’s message of faith continues to resonate with voters across Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.”
Although Scott may have missed a breakout moment at the debate, his team did not need to make waves to stay afloat. They entered the third quarter of 2023 with $21 million cash on hand, according to financial filings — the second most of any Republican candidate. And the super PAC that is backing him, Trust in the Mission (or TIM), announced a $40 million ad-buy that will begin airing this month in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
That financial advantage will allow him more time to try and win over voters: “Tim has the resources and message to be competitive through the entirety of the Republican primary,” a source close to the campaign told ABC News.
As the only White House hopeful currently working on Capitol Hill, and as the Senate’s fall session is about to begin, Scott’s time on the road has been limited.
But, two days after the debate, Scott embarked on a tour of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. It was a chance to do some much needed retail politics in early voting states where residents are used to up-close-and-personal access to primary candidates.
He’d previously only been to New Hampshire a handful of times. But in this deeply purple swing state, convincing a voter to change political sides is a real possibility. Retail politics matter.
One voter who showed up to his recent campaign stop at Robie’s Country Store told ABC News that she’s a Democrat who doesn’t believe President Joe Biden can win but she wants to make sure if she has to vote for a Republican that it’s not for Trump or DeSantis.
Scott’s three-state swing overlapped with a slew of headlines: Trump’s mug shot in his Georgia criminal case was released (he denies wrongdoing); a gunman killed three in what authorities called an anti-Black shooting in Florida; and a hurricane touched his home state of South Carolina.
Being on the trail at the same time offered a chance to practice answering rapid-fire questions from reporters and voters — something that up until recently Scott very rarely did.
In a tense exchange at Scott’s second stop at a diner in Concord, New Hampshire, 79-year-old retired teacher David Coffey asked him, “If you don’t stand up to Trump, how are you going to stand up to the president of Russia and China?”
Scott began to say, “It’s very easy. If you stand toe to toe with the leaders that are…” before Coffey interrupted, “But you’re not standing toe to toe with somebody who you don’t accept as president.”
Scott went on to say, “Do you want to have a conversation, or do you want to monologue? I’m happy to listen. If you want to have a dialogue, then I’ll be speaking as well” before sitting down to speak with Coffey.
He also stopped at a table of three older voters who questioned him about his insurance business. One of them, 91-year-old Robert Schroeder, told ABC News, “I think he intends to help people understand …. Hard work is what breeds success.”
Scott’s optimistic message helped carry him to Congress and it’s a key part of his pitch to voters — “grievance or greatness” is how he put the choice in his campaign launch speech, in May.
His party’s only Black senator, Scott has often invoked his own road to success from hardscrabble beginnings.
“Our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: Victimhood or victory,” he said in May.
In his home state of South Carolina, he is beloved, winning reelection back in 2022 by 63%.
At Jeff Duncan’s “Faith and Freedom BBQ” fundraiser in Anderson, South Carolina, last month, where DeSantis was set to be the keynote speaker, later replaced by his wife Casey as the governor dealt with the effects of Hurricane Idalia, Scott received a standing ovation from an audience filled with people wearing DeSantis swag. It was clear — Scott was home.
Patrick Lollis from Easley, South Carolina, wasn’t deterred by Scott’s debate performance. He told ABC News, “There’s a certain quality in being who you are, in being genuine.”
Lollis said he wanted both DeSantis and Scott on the same ticket. As to who should get which spot, he couldn’t say.
So-called “veepstakes” questions continue to shadow the Scott campaign. As one of the only candidates Trump has yet to attack, voters wonder whether or not Scott is perhaps really running for the No. 2 slot. Not so, Scott insists.
“Second place is a first loser,” he has said.
Scott has several more stops in Iowa and New Hampshire before heading to the second GOP debate in California at the end of the month. His campaign has spent a whopping $14 million in ad-buys for both states, with the latest purchase running through the end of November.
But will name recognition and his face-to-face charm offensive boost him in the polls?
For Coffey, Scott reminds him of another junior senator armed with a winning back story who charted an improbable rise in national politics, despite the obstacles.
However, while Coffey thinks Scott has all of the potential in the world, he’s not sure Scott will be able to tap into it.
“I think he’s got Obama in him,” Coffey told reporters, referring to the former president. “Obama came out of nowhere, Scott’s coming out of nowhere, they’re both United States senators and they both can lead this country. He’s got the power to do that. Can he beat the people who were on the stage the other night? I don’t think he can.”
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