CHARLESTON, S.C. — Summerville’s Don Corinna had a choice to consider Saturday at the Charleston Area Convention Center.
The 62-year-old software salesman, who moved from Boston to South Carolina in October, said he likes former Gov. Nikki Haley as a 2024 Republican presidential contender, but he also likes U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Florida Gov. 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 somebody that has strong conservative values that protects the security of the nation, i.e. the border, (and) smaller government, some of the common themes of right-leaning conservatives.”
Of the roughly 450 people who attended the conservative Palmetto Family Council’s inaugural conference Saturday to hear two presidential contenders and a handful of possible hopefuls speak, more than a dozen voters echoed similar sentiments to Corrina.
Many said they like Haley and Scott, hoping Republican voters can move on from former President Donald Trump. Others said they prefer DeSantis, who, like Scott, has not yet declared his candidacy, while a few said they plan to stick with the former president.
“Trump did a fantastic job for the four years he was in, and he’s the only one that can get this country back to the way it was,” said Anna Ducker, 71, of Charleston, who said she agrees with Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. “It was wonderful when he was here.”
The messaging test and practice for Republican candidates on Saturday came 11 months before the first-in-the-South Carolina presidential primary, key, party leaders say, to winning the White House. Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination, with the exception of Newt Gingrich in 2012 who won the primary, but lost the nomination to Mitt Romney.
Speakers Saturday included Haley, Scott, declared presidential candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said he’ll announce in April whether he plans to run. Another possible 2024 hopeful, former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, said he plans to make his decision whether to enter the race by the summer.
Corrina, who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, said Saturday while he’s leaning toward Haley he plans to wait it out.
“Between Haley, DeSantis and Tim Scott, I think the fundamentals of conservatism, those ideals that I think Trump really espoused, are alive and good,” Corinna said. “I think Trump did a heck of a lot of things for us. My only problem is he’s divisive. I certainly want to see someone act presidential. I like people who think, who think long-term.”
At the forum Saturday, Republicans showcased their conservative credentials.
Haley, who said no one thought she would win her South Carolina House seat in 2004 or the governor’s race in 2010, told voters she isn’t worried about currently polls showing her in single digits.
“The poll numbers you see today are not going to be the poll numbers you see 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, currently still in place.
“I’m pro-life because my husband was adopted. I’m pro-life because we had trouble having both of our children,” Haley said. “Every pre-born child is a blessing from God.”
Scott, who hasn’t announced whether he’ll run but has made a handful of 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 folks hooked on the drug of victimhood 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 an expected indictment of Trump in New York over hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Ramaswamy called on Haley and DeSantis to speak out against the indictments, as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did at the forum.
“We cannot have politically empowered prosecutors eliminating the opposition of a ruling party using arrest power,” Ramaswamy said. “Either you’re on that side of actually avoiding that political persecution as prosecution, or you’re not. And if you’re not, that’s fine. You better explain why.”
In his remarks, Hutchinson, noting recent Republican election losses, said it’s time for the party to turn the page, avoiding Trump’s name altogether.
“We need to make sure they could win,” Hutchinson said. “We need to make sure they are not someone who tears our country apart, looks to the worst of America, as opposed to the best of America.”
On Friday, South Carolina Democratic Party Trav Robertson, sought to attach the Republican speakers to the Trump-wing of the GOP.
“Nikki Haley. Tim Scott. Vivek Ramaswamy. Asa Hutchinson. They’re all going to try to out-MAGA (Make American Great Again) one another in order to throw red meat to an extreme base of their party” Robertson said. “This messy primary is going to be a quick race to the bottom.”
As South Carolina Republican voters mulled their preferred candidate, so did voters from other important 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 the younger Griffin wanted an opportunity to see the candidates up close, even though he won’t be able to vote in 2024.
“I think (the major issues) are the economy, abortion rights and LGBTQ policies,” the 15-year-old said sitting next to his father, who said he plans to back Ramaswamy over Scott or Haley, praising his success in business.
“I think that experience will carry over in helping to restore our economy,” Marty Griffin Sr. said. “And he’s young, with (a) fresh take on politics.”
For South Carolina voters, several said they’re looking for a candidate who can cut through politically divisive times.
“We need to come together as a country in order to repair ourselves as a nation,” said Latrecia Pond, 66, who serves as director of outreach for the Charleston County GOP.
Pond said it was too early for her to know who she’ll support in 2024, saying “I need a bit more information before I decide.”
Some have made up their minds.
Horry County’s Gerri McDaniel said she’d ideally like to see a Trump-Scott ticket, but if Trump isn’t 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 Trump’s South Carolina campaign. “I love Tim Scott, but he just doesn’t have the recognition yet.”
North Charleston’s Steven Snow, 64 and his wife, Barbara, 58, said they’re rooting for Scott, mainly because he’s personable and hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“If you saw him at the gym or at the store, he’d stop to talk to you,” said Barbara, who, like most voters Saturday, said the economy was the most pressing issue for them.
Others said they’re ready to move on from Trump.
“We have a whole slate of people that are capable of taking over,” said Susan Scouten, 74, of North Charleston. “And when I look on the other side of the aisle, it’s scary to think who the Democrats might have for president, including (President Joe) Biden.”
Scouten said she plans to support Haley for president because she is “sharp and a quick learner.”
So does Chris Mora, the Pickens, Georgia, Republican Party chairman.
“We have got to get spending under control, and start acting like conservatives and not just say we are,” Mora, 49, said.
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