NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — At a conservative forum on Saturday, South Carolina Republicans had a common refrain about two home-state political figures who are eyeing the White House in 2024, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott.
“I like them both.”
It was the first time Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott had attended the same event during the 2024 campaign, in a key battleground state that fueled their political rise and that will play a critical role as they prepare to square off for the Republican nomination for president, one officially and the other unofficially so far.
The two allies have largely steered clear of each other as they have staked out their respective lanes early in a presidential primary in which the specter of former President Donald J. Trump looms large. And while Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott might not be fighting each other, they will almost certainly be fighting for the same voters.
At the forum on Saturday in North Charleston, both Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott received standing ovations as they entered and left the stage. Each one drew whoops and claps in response to points they made about the teaching of race in schools and problems with the Biden administration. And each one drew a small crowd on the side of the room to jostle for a closer photo, hug or handshake.
“It’s going to be virtually impossible to take two from the same state, but that we know,” said Elizabeth Lyons, who moved to Charleston from Connecticut in 2021. Her husband, Michael, chimed in: “I’ll bet you either one or the other of them is going to be the vice-presidential candidate in 2024.”
It remains unclear if either Ms. Haley or Mr. Scott — or both — will generate momentum beyond their in-state stardom. Their toughest task will be winning over Republicans eager for a Trump alternative, as well as a portion of the former president’s hyper-conservative base. The dynamic, some say, has the air of the 2016 G.O.P. primary, in which a crowded field cleared a path for Mr. Trump to win.
“They’re both very popular with Republicans in South Carolina,” said Chip Felkel, a veteran South Carolina political consultant who said he is remaining neutral in the primary. “The question is, does their popularity exceed that of the former president?”
Many of those at the forum said they were still undecided as to whom they would nominate for president in 2024. Mary Catherine Landers, 63, was among them. A lifelong Republican voter who moved to Charleston from Indiana in 2018, Ms. Landers supported Mr. Trump in 2020. But she said she feared some conservatives would stay home if he were nominated again, and that Ms. Haley was the draw for her on Saturday.
“I’m excited about both,” Ms. Landers said, though she added, “I think personally the one who would have the better chance at this point in time is going to be Nikki.”
Ms. Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Trump, launched her campaign for president in February. Mr. Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, has yet to formally declare his candidacy, but he is widely expected to make a decision in the next few weeks.
South Carolina is home to a varied conservative electorate — Libertarian-leaning Lowcountry voters, establishment insiders around Columbia’s State Capitol, staunch conservatives along its eastern coast upstate to the North Carolina border. How Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott ultimately fare in South Carolina will be decided at county party picnics, on the debate stage and, perhaps most importantly, at smaller platforms like the Saturday forum.
The event drew a couple hundred of the party’s most faithful Christian conservative voters and activists to a convention center in North Charleston. Speakers stoked anxieties about social issues like abortion and transgender students, railing against what they saw as existential dangers that the next party nominee will be tasked with righting: China’s ascendance on the world stage, the war in Ukraine and ongoing economic uncertainty.
An open question is whether the governor of a state to the south, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, will draw a large network of support. The governor has closely trailed Mr. Trump in polling and has amassed a fund-raising haul of more than $100 million.
Jerry Dorchuck, a Florida-based pollster who has conducted polling for candidates in South Carolina, said the results of his polls in the state have followed a national trend: Mr. Trump still commands nearly half the Republican vote, followed closely by Mr. DeSantis. In South Carolina, both Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott have roughly equal support, floating at or below 10 percent.
Right now, Mr. Dorchuck said, “It’s Trump’s race to lose, DeSantis’s race to win.”
Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott benefit from household-name status in the state. Mr. Scott got his political start on Charleston’s City Council and is the only Black lawmaker to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Ms. Haley served for six years as a state representative in a district just outside Columbia before winning the governorship after a tough campaign in 2011. In fact, it was Ms. Haley who appointed Mr. Scott to his current Senate seat in 2012.
Their campaigns — one established and one still under construction — have split some allegiances among the Palmetto State’s political class, albeit amicably. A handful of donors have given to both operations. A few, though, are waiting for their candidates of choice to enter the race.
Chad Walldorf, a Charleston-area business owner and G.O.P. donor who has been a close ally of both Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott, said he would ultimately support Mr. Scott in a potential presidential bid.
“It’s a difficult choice that I think many South Carolina Republicans are going to have to figure out in the coming months ahead, assuming that Tim does enter the race,” he said.
Support for Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump has been mixed among South Carolina elected officials, with several waiting to take sides. Representatives Russell Fry, Will Timmons and Joe Wilson are on the former president’s leadership team in the state, as is Senator Lindsey Graham. Representative Ralph Norman has thrown his support behind Ms. Haley.
Ms. Haley’s allies said that because she served in Mr. Trump’s administration, she could bring the knowledge of the former president’s policy goals without the bombast that turned off moderate conservatives. She has also won a handful of tough races, namely her run for governor.
Mr. Scott, on the other hand, has not run in tough statewide races. His proponents have praised his conservative messaging that has often been overwhelmingly positive and peppered with Bible verses. And, if he does run, he will enter the race with more than $20 million already in the bank.
But with Mr. Scott not yet a declared candidate and Ms. Haley still building national momentum, some Republican leaders and strategists warn that both of them could crowd the field and clear a path for Mr. Trump to win the state.
“Are they splitting the vote? Yeah, they certainly are,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who is supporting Ms. Haley. “Are they going to take any from Donald Trump? I don’t know yet.”
Mr. Trump still commands a majority share of support among Republican voters in South Carolina. He did not attend Saturday’s event, though he was invited. Neither did Mr. DeSantis, who was also invited. Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is still mulling a possible presidential bid and who attended the forum, told reporters on Saturday that the presence of Mr. Scott and Ms. Haley created “a little bit of a complicated arena.”
Mr. Scott has been on a weekslong listening tour through early primary states, namely Iowa and South Carolina. Outside of the requisite engagements with voters and donors, Mr. Scott has paid particular attention to faith leaders and has held a handful of listening sessions with pastors. Ms. Haley, whose campaign has boasted that she has made nearly 20 campaign stops in the month she has been a candidate, plans to visit New Hampshire later in March.
Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott are two Republicans of color in an overwhelmingly white party. Each one has used that distinction to flatten Democratic criticisms of systemic racism in America and to argue that the country remains a beacon of progress and opportunity.
“America’s not racist, we’re blessed,” Ms. Haley said, a message she has emphasized repeatedly.
Mr. Dawson, the former chairman of the state Republican Party who is supporting Ms. Haley, offered another scenario. Instead of cannibalizing each other’s voters, Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott, he said, could consolidate their resources if one of them were to suspend their presidential bid to support the other. Such a move could strengthen one contender’s odds against a higher-polling candidate, such as Mr. Trump or Mr. DeSantis.
“You team those two up on something, you got a problem,” Mr. Dawson said. “Because they like each other.”
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