Haley (left), Scott | File photos

Two homegrown presidential candidates have a lot of work to do if they want to break out of single digits in the polls and be serious 2024 contenders.

A late July New York Times/Siena College national poll showed just 3% of respondents preferred former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. — just like former Vice President Mike Pence. All three seem to brag they’re in third place in national polling, but really? — especially when the obvious frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, scored a crushing 54%. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis came in a distant second at 17%.

So to suggest that Haley and Scott have a lot at stake in the first big debate of the primary season on Aug. 23 might be the understatement of the year.

“While debates don’t often change minds in the general election, they can help voters differentiate between candidates in a primary,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts observed.  

Louis Jacobson, senior correspondent with Politifact, said Haley and Scott haven’t yet broken through the clutter and made much of an impression with primary voters.

“This has been hard for all of Trump’s competitors, of course, given that his legal issues have sucked up so much of the oxygen,” he said. 

Nevertheless, Haley and Scott have been good at raising millions of dollars. Haley has been on the hustings all over New Hampshire and Iowa making direct appeals to voters with a signature line that she’ll outwork every other candidate. Scott has been smiling a lot and pushing his personal moral code across Iowa to try to break through with a decency message, in contrast to Trump’s behavior revealed in three criminal indictments.

Ahead for Haley

So what does Haley have to do in the debate to break out of the pack?  More than likely, she’ll pound her foreign policy experience gained while Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations and will particularly try to make China a bogeyman.  

Knotts said she’ll also tout her executive experience as governor. She probably won’t brag about efforts to lure Chinese companies to the Palmetto State. But she will use poll-tested language to pick a fight with the current president, Joe Biden.  

One long-time political observer commented, “Her theme reminds me of the old red scare tactics. Any criticism she throws at Trump will be obtuse and refer to ‘a new generation of leadership.’”

Greenville Republican analyst Chip Felkel said Haley has to engage on her former boss, Trump — even if he doesn’t show up for the debate.

“Haley must quit straddling the fence,” he said. “She must go after Trump and go after him hard, as someone who witnessed first hand his volatility and unwillingness to take the advice of those who he placed in positions of responsibility.  

“Unlike Scott, she has receipts and she needs to present clear evidence of his mistakes on foreign policy, how she differs with him. Until she clearly and distinctly tells us what would be different in a Haley Administration as opposed to re-electing the former guy, she will continue to tread water.”

Scott’s challenge

Scott also needs a strong debate performance and likely will send a clear message of “you can trust me.”  He may use Mexico, instead of China, as his bogeyman to attract support.

“I expect Scott to talk about his compelling personal story and his strong conservative voting record in the U.S. Senate,” Knotts said.

Felkel said Scott hasn’t yet taken Trump to the woodshed, but should.

“I do think his more positive message is being received and appreciated by the voters who are just tired of all the controversy and bluster, but like Haley, he has yet to tell us what would be distinctly different if he were to win versus Trump.  

“Both Haley and Scott are running too much against Biden when their opponent right now is really Trump.”

Award-winning columnist Andy Brack is editor and publisher the Charleston City Paper and Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.