Don Corinna of Summverville had a choice to consider Saturday at the Charleston Area Convention Center.
The 62-year-old software salesman, who moved to South Carolina from Boston in October, said he likes former governor Nikki Haley as the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, but also likes US Senator Tim Scott, RS.C. , and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“I don’t care what your gender is, what your age (is). I really don’t care,” Corinna told The State Media Co. “What I want is someone who has strong conservative values that protect the nation’s security, i.e. the border, (and) smaller government, some of the common themes of right-wing conservatives.”
Of the roughly 450 people who attended the inaugural conference of the conservative Palmetto Family Council on Saturday to hear two presidential contenders and a handful of potential hopefuls speak, more than a dozen voters echoed similar sentiments to Corrina.
Many said they like Haley and Scott, hoping that Republican voters can outrun Donald Trump. Others said they favored DeSantis, who, like Scott, has yet to declare his candidacy, while some said they intended to stick with the former president.
“Trump has done a fantastic job in the four years he’s been in and he’s the only one who can put this country back to the way it was,” said Anna Ducker, 71, of Charleston, who said she agreed with Trump’s false claims that the election of 2020 was stolen. “It was wonderful when he was here.”
The messaging test and practice for the Republican candidates on Saturday came 11 months before the first presidential primary in South Carolina, critical, party leaders say, to winning the White House. Since 1980, the winner of SC’s Republican presidential primary has captured the GOP nomination, with the exception of Newt Gingrich in 2012, who won the primary but lost the nomination to Mitt Romney.
Speakers on Saturday included Haley, Scott, declared presidential candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who said he will announce in April whether he plans to run. Another possible 2024 candidate, former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, said he plans to make his decision to enter the race by the summer.
Corrina, who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, said Saturday that while he is leaning towards Haley, he plans to wait.
“Between Haley, DeSantis and Tim Scott, I think the fundamentals of conservatism, those ideals that I think Trump really stood for, are alive and well,” said Corinna. “I think Trump has done a lot of things for us. My only problem is that it’s divisive. I certainly want to see someone act presidential. I like people who think, who think long term.”
Republicans flex conservative credentials
At Saturday’s forum, Republicans flaunted their conservative credentials.
Haley, who said no one thought she’d win her House of Representatives seat in 2004 or the gubernatorial race in 2010, told voters she’s not worried about current polls showing her in the single digits.
“The polling numbers you see today are not going to be the same a year from now,” Haley said.
Haley also used the forum to talk about education, government spending, faith and abortion. As governor, Haley signed South Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban, which is still in effect.
“I am pro-life because my husband was adopted. I’m pro-life because we had trouble having our two kids,” Haley said. “Each child born is a blessing from God.”
Scott, who has not announced whether he will run but has made some trips to early voting states, reiterated his support for law enforcement and school choice while also criticizing Democrats.
“The radical left is trying to get people addicted to the drug of victimization and the narcotic of despair. It’s ruining America,” Scott said. “We don’t want to ruin America. We want to restore faith in America.”
Ramaswamy used the speaking event to blast a long-awaited Trump indictment in New York over secret money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Ramaswamy asked Haley and DeSantis to speak out against the charges, as did US Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., at the forum.
“We cannot have prosecutors with political powers eliminating opposition from a ruling party using the power of arrest,” Ramaswamy said. “Either you are on the side of really avoiding political persecution as an accusation, or you are not. And if you’re not, that’s okay. You better explain why.
In his remarks, Hutchinson, noting the recent defeats in the Republican election, said it was time for the party to turn the page by avoiding Trump’s name altogether.
“We need to make sure they can win,” Hutchinson said. “We need to make sure they’re not someone who rips our country apart, looks at the worst of America as opposed to the best of America.”
On Friday, SC Democratic Party Trav Robertson sought to attach the Republican speakers to the Trump wing of the GOP.
“Nikki Haley. Tim Scott. Vivek Ramaswamy. Wing Hutchinson. They will all try to out-MAGA (Make American Great Again) each other in order to throw red meat to an extreme base of their party,” Robertson said. “This messy primary will be a quick race to the bottom.”
Forum draws voters from across SC, even Michigan
As Republican voters in South Carolina pondered their preferred candidate, so did voters in other major voting states.
Marty Griffin Sr., 58, and his son, Marty Griffin Jr., 15, traveled from Dearborn, Michigan, a swing state, to attend Saturday’s forum because young Griffin wanted an opportunity to see the candidates up close, even if he didn’t win. be able to vote in 2024.
“I think (the main issues) are the economy, abortion rights and LGBTQ policies,” said the 15-year-old sitting next to his father, who said he plans to support Ramaswamy over Scott or Haley, praising his business success.
“I think that experience will carry over to help restore our economy,” said Marty Griffin Sr. “And he is young, with (a) new view of politics.”
For South Carolina voters, several said they are looking for a candidate who can overcome the divisive times.
“We need to come together as a country to repair ourselves as a nation,” said Latrecia Pond, 66, who serves as outreach director for the Charleston County Republican Party.
Pond said it’s too soon for her to know who she’ll support in 2024, saying “I need a little more information before I decide.”
Some have already made up their minds.
Horry County’s Gerri McDaniel said she would like to see a Trump-Scott ticket, but if Trump is not the nominee, she would support Scott at the top of the ticket.
“My first loyalty is to President Trump,” said McDaniel, who previously worked on the Trump campaign in South Carolina. “I love Tim Scott, but he still doesn’t have the recognition.”
Steven Snow, of North Charleston, 64, and his wife, Barbara, 58, said they’re rooting for Scott, mostly because he’s kind and hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“If you saw him at the gym or the store, he would stop to talk to you,” said Barbara, who, like most voters on Saturday, said the economy was the most pressing issue for them.
Others have said they are ready to leave Trump.
“We have a whole list of people who are capable of taking over,” said Susan Scouten, 74, of North Charleston. “And when I look across the aisle, it’s scary to think who the Democrats might have as president, including (President Joe) Biden.”
Scouten said he plans to support Haley for president because she is “insightful and a quick learner.”
So does Chris Mora, the GOP chairman from Pickens, Georgia.
“We have to rein in spending and start acting like conservatives and not just saying we are,” said Mora, 49.