A microphone in hand, Sen. Tim Scott left the podium at a recent barbecue event in South Carolina and made his way through tables draped in red, white and blue as attendees finished plates of pulled pork and baked beans.
As he talked about his campaign, Scott passed Casey DeSantis, the first lady of Florida, who looked ahead at the empty stage from which she would soon speak. She was there in place of her husband, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was overseeing the response to Hurricane Idalia.
Several hours earlier, former Gov. Nikki Haley packed an event hall about 130 miles to the northeast. An overflow crowd spilled out into the back hallways, with some people having to watch her remarks on a video monitor.
The flurry of activity showed the priority these three campaigns are placing on South Carolina, where the Republican primary is traditionally the last chance for many White House hopefuls to break through before Super Tuesday. If former President Donald Trump maintains his front-runner status here and in the other early voting states, his path to the GOP nomination may be nearly impossible to stop.
In all but one primary since 1980, the Republican winner in South Carolina has gone on to be the party’s nominee.
Both in the state and nationally, Trump is far ahead in the Republican field. Battling for a distant second place are the two home-state candidates — Scott and Haley — and DeSantis. A July poll from Fox Business found that Scott, Haley and DeSantis each drew double digits, but Trump still led by more than 30 points.
Scott and Haley face added pressure given the traditional expectation for a presidential candidate to win their home state. But they may also splinter any traditional home turf edge in South Carolina, which could allow DeSantis to relegate them to a potentially embarrassing third or even fourth place.
“In a split vote like this, you can’t help but think that Donald Trump has the natural advantage over everybody else because he just has to win one more vote than second place,” said Dave Wilson, a conservative political strategist in the state.
Several voters considering their options variously praised and criticized the three second-place contenders, reflecting how splintered the field is.
“We’ve got a lot of good ones,” said Debra Donnan, a 52-year-old former postal worker from the city of Laurens. “I don’t exactly know. I’m just watching and learning.”
Donnan said she thinks both Trump and DeSantis have a great shot, but that Scott does, too.
“Don’t discount him,” she said of Scott. “He is a great American. He is very strong in his belief system, and he is not a wimpy person.”
Haley, meanwhile, drew praise from Irene Gatton, a 78-year-old retired nurse, as “very down to earth” and “intelligent.”
South Carolina’s institutional support is behind Trump. He’s locked up endorsements from Sen. Lindsey Graham and Gov. Henry McMaster, who was lieutenant governor before Trump picked Haley as his United Nations ambassador — something Trump has claimed McMaster asked him to do.
On the July 4 weekend, Trump drew a massive crowd of tens of thousands to tiny Pickens, South Carolina, a feat no other candidate has matched.
He has done far fewer events overall and skipped the first presidential debate, a decision criticized by voters at other candidates’ events. But Trump remains the top political figure in the party and has kept a strong standing with Republicans, even as he faces four criminal indictments.
Speaking at the “Faith & Freedom BBQ” last week in South Carolina’s Upstate region — invited to speak not as a White House hopeful but as a sitting home state senator — Scott said his campaign was “focusing on restoring hope, creating opportunity and protecting the America we all love." He said that includes supporting law enforcement, finishing the U.S.-Mexico border wall and giving parents more choices in their children’s education.
He was followed by Casey DeSantis. From Florida — where he remained, in lieu of delivering the keynote address as had been planned, to help his state prepare for Hurricane Idalia — Ron DeSantis recorded a three-minute introduction video that got roars from the crowd. Casey DeSantis gave familiar one-liners about her children and raising a family in the Florida governor’s mansion.
But she also hit hard at President Joe Biden. She pledged that her husband would be a president “who helps the children in the White House with homework instead of cocaine.” That was a reference to the drugs found earlier this year in the White House, as well as the public substance abuse struggles of Biden’s son, Hunter.
Haley didn’t appear at the barbecue but instead packed an earlier event in Indian Land, a small community near Charlotte, North Carolina. She seemed to be in an especially good mood as she spoke, buoyed by her first debate performance, in which she sharply criticized rival Vivek Ramaswamy on foreign policy and pointedly noted on an otherwise all-male stage that “if you want something done, ask a woman.”
At her town hall, she went after Ramaswamy again with a double-edged Southerner's barb that drew appreciative laughter: “Bless his heart.”
“I know I wear a skirt,” she said. “But y’all see me at work. If you say something that is totally off the wall, I’m going to call you out on it every single time.”
During their overlapping years as Republican officeholders in South Carolina, Haley and Scott largely appealed to many of the same voters. They’ve both won every statewide race in which they’ve competed, although Scott has not ever faced significant Democratic opposition in the state, which hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide in almost two decades.
“I think Tim Scott could be a good vice president, but he said he didn’t want to,” said retired engineer Huley Shumpert from Pelion.
The 76-year-old was with his wife, Brenda Shumpert, at the barbecue. The couple were undecided about who they would support as the GOP nominee, but both said they preferred Scott to stay in the Senate.
Shumpert said she could envision Haley as a running mate for Trump or DeSantis, but the retired media specialist said she wouldn’t support Haley for president because of a high-profile decision dating back to her second term as governor.
Haley had long resisted calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds — even casting a rival’s push to do so as a desperate stunt. But she reversed course in 2015 and advocated that the flag come down following the racist slaying of nine Black churchgoers during a Bible study in Charleston.
“Nikki was our governor, and she took down the Confederate flag, which to us is important,” Brenda Shumpert said. “(There’s) historical significance in that.”
Haley won over several locals who attended her event, including Gail Peplinski, a 71-year-old retired executive assistant. Before the Aug. 23 debate, Peplinski had been leaning toward supporting Trump.
But Haley is “no-nonsense” and “doesn’t just talk a lot of fluff,” she said.
Rick Satterfield was walking out with Peplinski and said he thinks Haley won the debate though DeSantis did well. But in praising Haley, Satterfield also also captured a dynamic Haley and Scott are running to change — to be seen as the front-runner and not a runner-up.
“Even if she doesn’t make president, I think she’d be a great vice president, because then she could run in four years if it’s Trump,” he said.