South Carolinians Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, along with other presidential hopefuls, on Saturday addressed a Christian conservative forum on Saturday and presented their vision for 2024 as they eye the White House and aim to make their case to a crucial voting bloc in the early voting state.
The forum, hosted by the Palmetto Family Council, was a chance for speakers to share their stances on issues and engage with conservative voters. But even as Haley, the Palmetto State’s former governor, and Scott, its junior US senator, looked to win over their fellow South Carolinians, the two Republicans who have so far dominated the race were notably missing: former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, was the first Republican to challenge her former boss for the GOP presidential nomination. She kicked off her campaign last month in Charleston, calling for a new generation of leadership, and recently spoke to a packed crowd at Myrtle Beach. She’s tried differentiating herself with her foreign policy experience and has centered her campaign on calling for congressional term limits, stronger border security, fiscal responsibility and increased domestic energy production.
During Saturday’s forum, Haley slammed critical race theory, transgender athletes for competing in women’s sports, and said that Mexican cartels need to be treated like the terrorist organization ISIS.
“When you’re born in South Carolina, you learn how to kick with a smile, right? So I am a fierce fighter when it comes to my family, when it comes to my country, when it comes to the things that I love and believe in. But I can pretty much tear you apart without you realizing I just did it and I can smile the whole time doing it.”
As for Scott, this forum was the latest sign that the Republican senator is testing the waters of the 2024 race. While he has dodged questions about whether he’s planning to run for president, Scott has been laying the groundwork for a campaign by taking his Faith in America “listening tour” to the key voting state of Iowa and South Carolina.
On Saturday, Scott criticized what he called the “blueprint for how to ruin America” from the “radical left,” and took aim at President Joe Biden’s economic policy, criticism of the Founding Fathers and the constitution, and the “disrespect” of law enforcement.
He said that to “restore faith in America, we must be the party of security,” arguing for more funding for police departments and to “close the US southern border, period.”
Haley and Scott long have been friends and political allies. In 2012, Haley appointed Scott to the vacant seat left by Sen. Jim DeMint, saying Scott had “earned the seat” from his personality and record. But after Haley announced her presidential bid, Scott declined to endorse her, according to The Post and Courier, in a sign that he could seek the presidency himself. Both had also attended the anti-tax group Club for Growth’s donor retreat in Palm Beach earlier this month alongside other potential GOP candidates.
GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and two others weighing a run for president, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former US Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, also spoke at the forum. Former Vice President Mike Pence, another likely 2024 candidate, was invited but spoke at a foreign policy panel in Iowa the same day. Other potential candidates who also were extended an invitation but did not attend include former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and South Dakota Gov. Kirsti Noem.
Much of the early 2024 conversation has revolved around Trump and DeSantis, who isn’t yet a declared candidate. Both were invited to the Palmetto Family Council forum, but neither attended.
Trump and DeSantis led a recent CNN poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents of who they’d most likely support for the 2024 Republican nomination. Haley trailed the two at 6%, while Scott was at 2%.
At the end of her remarks, Haley told the crowd that “the poll numbers you see today are not going to be poll numbers you see a year from now.”
South Carolina was key to Trump’s political rise in 2016. He won the Republican primary there, solidifying his status in a crowded Republican field as the frontrunner. Trump made the state one of his first stops in January in his first appearance on the campaign trail since announcing his bid for reelection.
But Trump’s legal woes continue to loom large on the campaign trail. The former president said Saturday he expects to be arrested in connection with the investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney next week, though he has maintained he will not drop out of the race if he’s charged.
During the forum, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, however, argued that the “prosecutor in New York has done more to help Donald Trump get elected president than each single person in America today.”
DeSantis, meanwhile, intends to wait until after the Florida legislative session concludes to decide whether to run for president. His national book tour had stops in Iowa and Nevada, but he has yet to visit South Carolina.
The forum falls a little less than a year out from the crucial South Carolina GOP primary. Republican voters in the state have picked the eventual Republican nominee in nearly every cycle since 1980, except for 2012.
Hutchinson on Saturday told the Christian conservative audience that they “will play an incredible role, an outsized role if you will, in the selection of the next president.”
But “if the evangelical community sits it out, and says ‘we are frustrated with it,’ then we are not going to be able to change the direction of our country,” said Hutchinson, who has called for alternatives to Trump.
He urged evangelicals to select a nominee who can win, but also “not someone that tears our country apart, that looks to the worst of America versus the best of America.”
The audience for Saturday’s forum appeared receptive to the 2024 hopefuls seeking to challenge the former Republican standard bearer – a contrast to the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month, which was largely a Trump-centric event. Haley and Ramaswamy both spoke at the event and were heckled.
“We believe that the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue runs straight through the Palmetto State,” Justin Hall, Palmetto Family Council’s communications director, told CNN, adding that the forum “certainly could jumpstart the campaign push in South Carolina.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting on Saturday.
CNN’s Kit Maher contributed to this story