Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott has shown a new willingness to needle his rivals in recent days after his affable approach proved a mismatch for last week’s pugilistic first 2024 primary debate.
The South Carolina senator poked former President Donald Trump for his coziness with Vladimir Putin. He dismissed entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy as a “good showman” who wouldn’t support the United States’ allies. He broadly swiped at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum for failing to endorse a national 15-week abortion ban.
In the wake of Scott’s wallflower performance in the Republican debate in Milwaukee last week, his subtle jabs at rivals during a six-day, three-state post-debate campaign swing could signal a shift toward a more confrontational approach for a candidate who has struggled to break through.
Scott plans to “be more aggressive” in the next debate, one person close to his campaign said.
“He’s going to come out hot,” the person said.
What’s not yet clear is how Scott – a candidate who, more than any other 2024 Republican contender, is offering primary voters a clean break from the grievance-fueled Trump era – will work himself into the mix, particularly against the more natural brawlers who are also vying to emerge as the party’s chief alternative to Trump.
Though their ideological positions are similar, Scott’s approach is diametrically opposed to the Trump-inspired, bare-knuckle tactics of DeSantis, who for months has placed second behind the former president in national and early-state polls of Republican primary voters.
Haley, Scott’s home-state rival and a onetime US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, is courting a similar base of White evangelical voters – and is also dependent on a strong performance in South Carolina’s primary, which follows the Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada nominating contests, as a catapult before the race turns national and delegate-rich Super Tuesday approaches.
While Scott largely stayed out of the mix at the Milwaukee debate, Haley was at the center of its most memorable moments when she lambasted Ramaswamy for his isolationist foreign policy stances and defended US support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said to Ramaswamy at one point.
A Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll found that 46% of potential GOP primary voters who watched the debate said they would consider voting for Haley – up from 29% before the event.
Scott’s numbers barely budged in the same poll – from 40% pre-debate to 43% – after a performance in which he largely stuck to his no-fighting approach and stayed out of the squabbling among the candidates.
Scott spoke the third-least among the eight contenders onstage, with only Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson commanding less time.
And Republican viewers ranked Scott’s debate performance near the back of the field, according to the Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll. Just 4% said Scott had impressed them the most – tied with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and leading only Burgum and Hutchinson. The South Carolina senator was well behind the leaders, DeSantis (29%), Ramaswamy (26%) and Haley (15%).
Google search trends found that interest in Ramaswamy and Haley spiked after the first debate, while Scott drew just 3% of candidate searches the day after; he was at 1%, tied with former Vice President Mike Pence and ahead of just Burgum and Hutchinson, a little more than a week later.
Asked about his Milwaukee performance and his approach to the second debate in California later this month, Scott’s campaign pointed to the differences he has expressed in recent days over abortion and foreign policy.
“Tim was disappointed by the other candidates on the debate stage and their unwillingness to advocate for life and stand with our allies. While other candidates were engaged in a food fight, Tim was focused on beating Biden and defending the values our nation was founded on. Tim’s message of faith continues to resonate with voters across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” Scott spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement.
Scott, while campaigning this week in Charleston, South Carolina, acknowledged that he’d been peripheral to the first debate.
“I learned that the more you insult people, the more time you get,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “I learned having no obvious good home training is another way to get more time.”
He said he believes that “the longer these debates go on, the more focused on substance they will get, and we will continue to rise to the top.”
One former Scott adviser said that in sticking with an optimistic message and staying out of skirmishes with rivals, Scott failed to reflect the depth of voters’ frustrations and their desire for a GOP nominee who will fight against what they see as unfavorable political and cultural currents.
“He’s not just a happy warrior. He’s just happy,” the former adviser said.
Another Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said debates are a “bad venue” for Scott.
“It’s not a ‘Morning in America’ moment, and I don’t know that the appetite is there for a soft-spoken, positive, optimistic dude,” the strategist said, referring to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1984 ad.
Still, other GOP strategists said the debates – especially those that take place without Trump onstage – won’t reshape the 2024 primary race.
“If you’re someone that is not Donald Trump, the debates don’t make or break you,” said Republican strategist Jai Chabria. “You’re trying to be a steady voice, you’re trying to be a credible voice, you’re trying to pick up enough institutional donors to keep your campaign going and then you build up enough presence and you figure out a place to make a splash.”
Scott’s campaign has the financial resources to outlast many of his rivals in what could become a grueling battle to emerge as the party’s top Trump alternative.
He is a formidable fundraiser whose campaign has already placed $13.7 million in ad buys, according to AdImpact data.
A pro-Scott super PAC, meanwhile, has already reserved about $37 million in ads and has announced plans to spend nearly $50 million, meaning that early-state voters could see about $64 million in pro-Scott advertising before the first votes of the 2024 GOP race are cast.
Metal mogul Andy Sabin, who attended a Milwaukee breakfast with Scott supporters the morning after the debate, said he is with Scott “more so than ever.”
A lawyer who recently co-hosted a Scott fundraiser and spoke on the condition of anonymity lauded the discipline of the candidate’s campaign team, which he described as not “shiny object people.”
Scott in recent days has also shown an increased willingness to take on his rivals.
“The loudest voices in the debate were the quietest voices on the issue of life,” he said in an interview with Fox News’ Trey Gowdy, criticizing DeSantis, Haley and Burgum for failing to endorse a 15-week federal abortion ban.
He also addressed Haley’s clash with Ramaswamy on foreign policy, describing the tech entrepreneur as uncommitted to supporting US allies, including Israel.
“Standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies like Israel is absolutely essential. We must be loyal to our allies and lethal to our adversaries,” Scott said. “And you heard folks who are good showmen on the stage but they refuse to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies, whether that’s Taiwan, Israel or other countries. That’s a problem if you want to be commander in chief of the United States.”
In Iowa on Wednesday, Scott drew a sharp distinction between his foreign policy vision and Trump’s.
“I don’t think you can sit down with President Putin and come to a decision in 24 hours. I think that’s completely unrealistic,” Scott said of a recent Trump claim. “So from my perspective, that aspect of his foreign policy, we’re just on different pages.”
“I don’t necessarily have high regard for dictators and murderers, even if they are world leaders,” he added.
Scott also pitched himself as a candidate who can attract a wider group of voters than Trump did in the 2020 presidential election.
“I think the power of persuasion is incredibly important. If we’re going to win the next election, the ability for us to get independents to vote with us, as opposed to against us, is a very clear area of distinction, not in the substance of the policy, but in the style of the delivery,” Scott said.
“If you want the power of persuasion so that we win elections going forward, may the Lord bless you to say yes to Tim Scott.”