For Tim Scott, the Debate Was the Moment That Wasn’t

by Pelican Press
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Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, arrived in New Hampshire on Friday for the start of a six-day, three-state blitz — the most extensive campaign swing since announcing his run for the White House.

But any momentum Mr. Scott had hoped to bring was as missing as he was during long stretches of the first Republican primary debate on Wednesday.

During the two-hour debate in Milwaukee, Mr. Scott spoke for only 8 minutes 15 seconds, according to The New York Times’s time tracker — a full four minutes less than the leading talker, former Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Scott flashed moments of humor but often faded entirely into the background. And he wasn’t targeted by his rivals, nor did he target them.

In the race to be the leading Republican alternative to former President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Scott had entered Wednesday’s debate seemingly primed for the first real moment of consequence for his campaign. He and his allies had flooded the airwaves in Iowa with the most advertising of any Republican. He had inched upward in the polls. The candidate he was most closely chasing, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, had slipped. And major donors were giving him fresh consideration.

But voters on Friday at two New Hampshire meet-and-greets in the capital city of Concord and the town of Hooksett said he had not yet set himself apart from the pack, even as they praised the senator’s positive message and likability. Several Republicans and independents open to supporting him expressed disappointment that Mr. Scott was not even visible enough to render a judgment.

“He was one that I wanted to hear more from,” said Allyson Vaschon, 57, who was at a diner in Concord where Mr. Scott shook hands and met voters on Friday afternoon. “I did like some of his answers but they were brief, and again, time just wasn’t allotted.”

Ms. Vaschon blamed the format more than Mr. Scott, who has defended his debate performance by saying it was a “food fight” rather than a substantive conversation. He told reporters in Hooksett on Friday that his closing statement at the debate, which touched on his rise from poverty to the presidential campaign, was the most effective message of the night.

The back-and-forth among his opponents on the stage “does not necessarily help anyone except for the media and Joe Biden,” Mr. Scott said.

Early indicators have pointed to lagging enthusiasm for his debate performance.

A Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey of Republicans after the debate showed that only 4 percent believed Mr. Scott had won, placing him toward the back of the pack. And of the eight candidates onstage, along with Mr. Trump, Mr. Scott’s name was tied for last for the share of Google searches in the week leading up to and after the debate, according to the company’s search trend data. The day after the debate, he garnered only 3 percent of the candidate searches, which can be a metric of voter interest. Atop the search list on Thursday morning was Vivek Ramaswamy, the former biotechnology executive and political newcomer who was the debate’s dominant character.

Eric Levine, a New York lawyer and Republican donor who attended the debate as a guest of Mr. Scott’s campaign, said he believed the senator had won by staying above the fray. But he acknowledged that “perhaps he could have been a little more aggressive,” and said that he had heard the same from other donors.

“I guess he made a little bit of a mistake in believing that rules matter,” Mr. Levine said of Mr. Scott’s decision to often wait until called upon rather than insert himself into the fracas. “Very few questions were actually asked of Tim Scott. He was put in a hole where he would have to insinuate himself.”

Gail Gitcho, a Republican strategist who has worked on past presidential campaigns and is unaligned in the 2024 race, said Mr. Scott’s showing amounted to a missed opportunity for a candidate whose super PAC has already reserved $40 million in advertising, the most of anyone in the primary.

“Tim Scott is built for this race,” Ms. Gitcho said. “He has the resources to go the distance. He has a life story unlike anybody else. But he didn’t break through.”

As Mr. DeSantis has dipped, the search for other possible Trump alternatives has intensified. In the area where Republican National Committee members were meeting in Milwaukee, one person named a wireless hot spot “Glenn Youngkin Needs to Run,” a reference to the Republican governor of Virginia.

Mr. Scott had prepared for the debate, his first ever on the national stage, by bringing on one of his party’s more noted debate coaches, Mari Will, as a senior adviser. Yet with his limited time, Mr. Scott did not find the opportunity to dive fully into the personal history that has undergirded his candidacy, especially how his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” as he put it in his 2020 convention speech.

Mr. Scott was the sole Black candidate on the stage in a party where a Black Republican presidential contender has surged, at least briefly, to the top of the polls in the last two open presidential primaries. In 2012, it was the pizza magnate Herman Cain. In 2016, it was the brain surgeon Ben Carson.

Both quickly faded. But Mr. Scott has a far more formidable political résumé.

Ahead of the debate, Mr. Scott’s allies and aides had said his message would remain positive while being direct enough to separate himself from the crowded primary field. Days before, Mr. Scott had traded much of his upbeat stump speech for a more forceful, policy-focused address at a conservative gathering in Georgia.

For months, Mr. Scott, who favors contrasting alliterations like “victory and victimhood” and “grievance and greatness,” has tried to beat back questions about his toughness. When asked about his messaging strategy at a donor retreat this spring, Mr. Scott assured supporters that he would be able to push back if challenged.

Toward the end of Wednesday’s debate, moderators asked Mr. Scott a question — about a president’s role in restoring religious faith in the country — that seemed aligned with his campaign message. Yet Mr. Scott’s response was surprisingly brief. The country, he said, “was founded on the Judeo-Christian values,” and then he quoted Scripture.

“Our responsibility should be to model the behavior we want others to follow,” he said. He then quickly added a point about education reform, vowing to “break the backs of the teachers’ unions.”

His answer, lasting roughly 35 seconds, fell short of the time allotment for candidates’ answers — a contrast with many of his opponents, who at one point had to be reminded that the closing bell signified their need to stop talking.

At the Concord diner on Friday, David Coffey, 79, an independent voter and a former schoolteacher, challenged Mr. Scott about his reluctance to directly criticize Mr. Trump after the senator had introduced himself. That prompted Mr. Scott to join him at his table.

“You’re avoiding standing up for his past,” Mr. Coffey told Mr. Scott as a waitress set down plates of bacon, eggs and pancakes. “You don’t want to lose all his votes — I get you. But when you go to Russia, when you go to China, how are you going to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I can’t do that’?”

“It’s very easy,” Mr. Scott responded, saying it would require the president to “stand toe-to-toe” with adversaries.

“You’re not standing toe-to-toe with somebody who you don’t accept as president,” Mr. Coffey replied.

“Do you want to have a conversation, or do you want to have a dialogue?” Mr. Scott asked Mr. Coffey. “If you want to have a dialogue, I’d love to have it.”

Mr. Scott described moments when he had challenged Mr. Trump during his presidency, and explained his belief that the Department of Justice was “broken.” After Mr. Scott left the table, Mr. Coffey told reporters that he was leaning toward supporting former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey in the Republican primary — someone whose fire against Mr. Trump he admired.

“Scott is a politician — not that Christie isn’t,” Mr. Coffey said, adding of Mr. Scott: “He avoided what I wanted to hear him say. But he’s got a nice presence to him.”

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