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Tim Scott, reluctant kingmaker

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  • And as one of this state's most popular politicians, Tim Scott is poised to be a GOP kingmaker for the first-in-the-South presidential primary next year
  • Almost 70% of Republicans view Scott favorably

Spartanburg, South Carolina (CNN)On the night he won his Senate race in 2014, South Carolina Republican Tim Scott got two congratulatory phone calls that his aides still recall.

One call came from President Barack Obama and the other came from Jeb Bush. The two phone calls spotlight Scott's dual and still emerging role. As the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate from the South since the late 1800s, he is an historic figure, the new face of a changing region and party still grappling with race.
    And as one of this state's most popular politicians, Scott is poised to be a GOP kingmaker for the first-in-the-South presidential primary next year.
    "He is very popular at home," said fellow South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in a CNN interview. "He is a man of faith who appeals to the Chamber of Commerce and the tea party."
    A new Winthrop University poll shows that almost 70% of Republicans view him favorably. Graham, meanwhile, has a 46% approval rating.
    "Tim's Town Halls" have given the Republican field a chance to court Scott, who has already hosted eight candidates, with six more scheduled. For his part, Graham, who is lagging badly in the polls, shouldn't expect any special favors from Scott, who has stopped short of saying that he will definitely endorse a candidate before the primary.
    "No head starts, it's a level playing field," Scott said. "I hope to be in a position to endorse at some point. I am looking for the right candidate and the right message and the right timing to endorse."
    Scheduled for February 20, this state's primary has historically launched GOP candidates to the nomination--Newt Gingrich in 2012 is the only candidate to win the primary and not win the nomination. The state has sometimes served as a tie-breaker, settling the on-going battle between the moderate and conservative wings of the party. In this cycle, South Carolina may also serve as a preview of the "SEC primary" on March 1, when as many as half a dozen southern states will go to the polls.
    "If you want to get it right, you have to impress these guys, South Carolina voters," Scott said.
    Impressing South Carolina voters is something that Scott himself will have to do again in November 2016 when his name will also appear on ballots for his first full term. While Scott enjoys high approval ratings now and wading into the presidential race is a chance to elevate his profile and flex some political muscle, voters and the GOP establishment can be fickle.
    Witness Gov. Nikki Haley. Once a tea party star, she became an embattled governor with low approval ratings whose backing of Mitt Romney in 2012 did little for her profile. She has since emerged as a possible ticket mate for the GOP nominee. Yet, she has been quietly tagged by some in her own party as political opportunist. Such is the nature of this state's politics.
    Appointed to the Senate in 2013 by Haley, and winning a special election the next year, Scott has built his political portfolio around poverty, education and body cameras for police officers. On a recent tour of his state, he visited a CVS store to access their apprenticeship program--in 2014 he teamed with Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, to introduce the LEAP Act, a bill that would increase apprenticeships.
    Yet, race is also a part of his portfolio. In the wake of the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church, Scott choked up on the Senate floor as he recalled the horror. When Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds, she cited Scott's election as proof of changing times in the state's "tough history" on matters of race.
    Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is Scott's best friend in Congress said from time to time, the racial divide comes up.
    "I asked him once, have you ever been stopped in a circumstance when you thought you weren't doing anything wrong. He goes, 'all the time,'" Gowdy, who co-hosts the presidential town halls with Scott, said. "I never had to live with that. I don't know what that feels like. Nobody has ever stopped me walking into the Capitol, making sure I was credentialed. If there is a bitterness about it, he keeps it incredibly well concealed."
    Next week, Scott will host former New York Gov. George Pataki and on October 24, he will host a town hall with Bush.
    "This isn't about Tim Scott playing kingmaker. If you know him, he is willing to make everyone else the star," Gowdy said. "Kingmaker would be the antithesis of what Tim Scott is. There is not a self-promoting bone in his body."
    Indeed, even as Scott is at the center of political world in his home state, he is already eyeing the exit.
    "My personal journey at some point heads towards the ministry, not towards the White House," he said. "My future isn't stuck in politics."