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Tim Scott’s likability is fueling his rise. But how high can he climb?


By Aaron Pellish, Eva McKend and Kim Berryman, CNN

(CNN) — After two hours at the Iowa State Fair spent posing for photos, glad-handing attendees visiting the livestock barn and indulging in carnival games and the famous pork chop grill, Tim Scott was heading for the exits when he stopped to meet a group of voters.

The South Carolina senator and Republican presidential candidate had been greeting voters throughout the day, many of whom enthusiastically thanked him for running.

Among this group, however, were some people who might otherwise cast aside the chance to meet any other Republican candidate. Yet they eagerly approached Scott in the middle of the fair’s main thoroughfare.

“I’m actually a Democrat,” one voter said as he shook the senator’s hand.

“Well, that’s OK, I’ll still be your president,” Scott replied. “When you need something, call the White House, and I’ll be happy to help.”

Moments later, another man approached Scott, this time a Republican, albeit one who appeared to be leaning toward one of Scott’s rivals in the GOP field.

“I know I got a Trump shirt on, but it doesn’t matter,” the man said. “I like you, you’re a good guy.”

“That’s OK, we’re all Americans,” Scott replied.

In the early stages of a primary race that has otherwise been defined by former President Donald Trump’s legal drama, bitter attacks between rivals and warnings over the future of the Republican Party, Scott has distinguished himself by projecting a hopeful and rosy vision of America. And as the Republican field turns its attention to the first presidential primary debate in Milwaukee next week, voters appear to be giving Scott consideration. In a New York Times/Siena College poll conducted at the end of July, Scott had the support of 9% of likely Republican voters in Iowa, putting him in third place behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but hovering above a wide field of candidates similarly angling to pitch themselves as alternatives to Trump.

Scott, who has made Iowa a priority since launching his campaign in May, feels his message is connecting with voters. He’s seen the rise in his poll numbers and an increase in attendance at his events, which he attributes to his bullish outlook on the future.

“We’re going to continue to do what we have been doing, which is focusing on the optimistic, positive message anchored in conservatism with a backbone,” Scott said Tuesday at the state fair. “That’s one of the reasons why we continue to see more people show up. … It is refreshing, people tell me, to have an actual conversation about the substance of issues.”

Rival campaigns are sensing Scott’s growing popularity. In a memo obtained by CNN in July, the super PAC supporting former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley identified Scott as a rival who could potentially win the nomination, along with Trump and DeSantis. A memo obtained by CNN in July from the super PAC backing DeSantis conceded that Scott had received “a serious look” from voters but added that “we expect Tim Scott to receive appropriate scrutiny in the weeks ahead.”

At a town hall in New Hampshire last week, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie paid Scott a backhanded compliment, categorizing himself and the senator as the only candidates who have expressed a desire to unify the country.

“Tim has, in his heart, the willingness to want to do that. I really do,” Christie said. “I don’t know if he has the ability to do it, because he’s never run anything.”

Scott may find himself a target of attacks on the debate stage given his campaign’s relative momentum. His campaign is preparing for the debate with a combination of traditional preparation and reminders for him to maintain the cheerful attitude that’s resonated with voters so far.

“Our strategy is just to get him in front of the podium a lot, throw a lot of tough questions at him. Get a lot of experts out, debate experts, to kind of poke and jab at him, throw him some, you know, crazy-fast pitches and just get him ready,” Scott campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper told CNN.

“I think he just needs to have fun. He’s on fire when he has fun, when he views it as just him giving the answers that he always knows how to give,” she added. “He’s going to be great.”

For his part, Scott has no intention of taking big swings at other candidates, content with reiterating the message he feels is working with voters rather than using the missteps of his opponents to score political points.

He said he feels his campaign’s current message is working and is focused on growing his support over time.

Scott’s rise in the polls comes as Trump, the field’s front-runner, faces four criminal cases against him. The latest came this week, when an Atlanta-based grand jury indicted him and 18 others on state charges related to their efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 defeat in Georgia.

Rather than attack Trump, Scott continues to characterize each indictment as politically motivated.

“We see the legal system being weaponized against political opponents,” he said Tuesday.

Recent polling signals there may be some Trump fatigue settling in among voters. In that same New York Times/Siena College poll, Trump’s support among likely Republican voters in Iowa was 10 points lower than his nationwide support among likely GOP voters, a possible indication that voters in Iowa could be pleased with their candidate options ahead of the state caucuses in January.

Consistency is key

Scott’s position in the race is bolstered by a significant fundraising advantage over other candidates, allowing the senator to make his face and his philosophy familiar to voters in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire. His most recent fundraising report showed Scott had $21.1 million in his campaign account at June 30, more than any other candidate, except for Trump, and boosted by a $21 million transfer from his Senate campaign account.

The Scott campaign has used that cash advantage early in the race, frequently rolling out TV and radio spots in Iowa and New Hampshire as part of a $5.5 million media reservation made in the days following the campaign’s launch. The ads serve to crystallize for voters Scott’s background and policy positions on a broad range of issues, including immigration, agriculture and foreign policy.

In the latest example of the campaign flexing its financial strength, Scott’s campaign is placing a new $8 million ad buy, including $6.6 million in TV reservations, in its second major ad buy since the campaign launched in May, a senior Scott campaign official tells CNN.

At an event Tuesday evening in Cambridge, Iowa, 30 minutes outside Des Moines, Scott saw firsthand the lasting effect his campaign advertising is having on voters in the state. During his remarks, he referenced a television commercial rolled out in May, which features clips of him speaking at events and outlining a series of beliefs around economic policy and violent crime.

Scott repeated one of his lines from the commercial – “If you take out a loan, you pay it back” – and was surprised to hear the audience finish the line in unison with him.

“Hallelujah, y’all, this is great. Y’all are starting to see the commercials, this is good news. I was wondering if they were buying anything with all that money I’m spending here,” Scott joked.

The feedback loop apparent in that moment speaks to the consistency of the Scott campaign’s messaging, something he feels is an important element in his appeal. Later Tuesday evening, Scott spoke about how he tries to be a role model in response to a question from an audience member.

“I consistently try to make sure that I practice what I preach. And whether it’s here in front of you all, we were talking about this earlier, there’s not a single ad on TV, that every single word I say, I endorsed it,” Scott said. “I wrote them, rewrote them and got them exactly as I would say it, no matter where I am, whether I’m talking to a ruby-red audience or a big-blue audience.”

“I think you have to be consistently the same if you want to have impact,” he added.

Scott’s hope is that his policy views and his overall outlook will earn the trust of voters heading into the first GOP debate.

“Our strategy is to be who we’ve always been. Bottom line is to remain an optimistic, positive guy anchored in conservatism, talking about the issues that the American people care about,” Scott told CNN on Tuesday.

Scott has made taking on “the radical left” a cornerstone of his campaign. He’s emphasized bringing his evangelical faith and conservative, business-friendly policies to the White House. He also has spent recent weeks talking about confronting China and the need for tighter border security with a visit to the southern border earlier this month.

“Victory or victimhood” is a rallying cry Scott often invokes at campaign events as he argues that Democrats emphasize the country’s racial strife too deeply. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, is steadfast in his assertion that America is a on a path to redemption when it comes to race relations, a message he typically delivers before largely White audiences.

Scott has long been well-liked by his fellow Republicans in Congress, as evidenced by a pair of uncharacteristically early endorsements from two GOP senators, South Dakota’s Mike Rounds and John Thune, the latter being the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. But the question remains whether Scott can go from being a likable candidate to a viable one.

Patrick Anderson, a Republican from Ames, Iowa, has already decided that Scott’s campaign has the potential for longevity. Anderson voted for Trump twice and would vote for him again if Trump won the nomination. But right now, he’s pulling for Scott.

“I like what he’s doing in the Senate. He’s got a good solid moral message. He stands up for traditional values, American values,” Anderson said. “I like that.”

He said he doesn’t regret voting for Trump but does wish the former president would alter his conduct so that “just because somebody throws a rock at you doesn’t mean you need to throw it back, especially when you’re president.” Scott, he said, serves as a model for how other candidates should campaign.

“I like Tim’s message,” Anderson said. “He’s got the same message that I’d like to see in all of our candidates, and I think it’s a great time to support him now.”

Ginger Nearmyer also voted twice for Trump, but after seeing Scott speak Tuesday at the state fair, she said she’s leaning toward voting for him.

“I like what he stands for,” Nearmyer said. “He’s a good man, a decent man.”

“I like his background, I like where he’s from, I like how he’s pulled himself up. He comes off as a really good, good man, too,” she added. “I’m impressed by him.”

But even some who described Scott as a “solid conservative” whom they loved – as Cheryl Soden of Ames did – have indicated they see him more as a potential running mate for Trump.

“I think he would make a great VP,” Soden said. “I think him and Trump would be a really good fit.”
This story has been updated with additional information.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Steve Contorno, Kate Sullivan and Ali Main contributed to this story.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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