Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, two days after announcing an exploratory committee for president, brought his message to friendly territory.
After greeting supporters on Friday at Alex’s Restaurant, a Charleston-area eatery, the senator made the case for his candidacy to a group of donors at a private retreat that took place over two days at a high-end hotel near the heart of Charleston’s downtown.
Among the most pressing questions from his backers at the retreat — both longtime supporters and relative newcomers — was how his message, at this stage a mostly positive and Bible-backed homage to America’s future, might play in what many expect to be a vitriolic Republican presidential primary.
Mr. Scott defended his strategy, according to two people who attended the retreat, saying he would take a kill-them-with-kindness approach, and he maintained that positivity is core to his personality and to his potential campaign. But, he added, he would be able to defend himself if he should face negative attacks.
The assembled group, a mix of South Carolina-based donors and national funders committed to Mr. Scott, left the two-day event on Saturday afternoon seemingly bought in to his potential presidential candidacy. His challenge now will be getting a broader Republican audience to follow suit.
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“I haven’t seen him do anything offensive that would annoy anybody,” said Jim Morris, a Charleston-based retiree who attended Mr. Scott’s restaurant visit on Friday. Mr. Morris said he had not decided whom he would support in the Republican primary but criticized the party’s widespread infighting.
“The party needs to get back together a little bit,” he said. “We don’t have to be the same, but we don’t have to hate each other.”
Should he formally begin a presidential campaign, as is widely expected, Mr. Scott will face an uphill battle to the Republican nomination. Public polling shows that former President Donald J. Trump maintains a hold on a majority of the party’s base, with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida capturing much of the rest. And though Mr. Scott has the advantage of outsize name recognition in this must-win state, he will still have to fight for support from donors and voters with another South Carolina powerhouse, former Gov. Nikki Haley, who has already declared her candidacy.
But the senator would enter the presidential primary with a financial advantage: He has roughly $21.8 million in his Senate campaign account. A handful of big-name Republican donors, including the tech magnate Larry Ellison, have given to the super PAC supporting him.
Mr. Scott, the son of a single mother and the grandson of a man forced to drop out of elementary school to pick cotton, has made his compelling personal story a feature of his public speeches and interviews. He often mentions his background to highlight a rise he believes would only be possible in America.
“It’s a blessing to come from a state like South Carolina, where a kid who grows up in a single-parent household mired in poverty can one day even think about being president of the United States,” he told reporters on Friday. “Only made in America is my story.”
Mr. Scott’s history and positive message, however, can sometimes seem at odds with the mood of many in his party. Mr. Trump, long known for crafting insulting descriptors for his competitors, goes after Democrats and Republicans alike. The super PAC supporting Mr. Trump’s campaign has spent nearly $4 million on television ads — most critical of Governor DeSantis — in the last three weeks, according to the advertising tracker AdImpact. Mr. DeSantis’s PAC has returned fire, running an ad suggesting that the former president joined Democrats in supporting gun control.
“The ones who are negative are the ones who are loudest,” said Kathy Crawford, 67, an independent voter and lifelong Charleston resident who said she would support Mr. Scott in the Republican primary if he ran. Voters, she said, “want to bring the country back together, and they want a positive message.”
And Mr. Scott’s message could resonate with a key audience in the Republican primary: conservative evangelical Christians. Mr. Scott has spent significant time focusing on evangelical voters in his tour of early primary states, often meeting with small groups of religious leaders in between quasi campaign stops. His public remarks are often peppered with quotes from the Bible. And in the video announcing his presidential exploratory committee, he pledges to “defend the Judeo-Christian foundation our nation is built on and protect our religious liberty.”
Mr. Scott’s Friday restaurant appearance had all the makings of a campaign stop, as he greeted employees, worked the room around a swarm of reporters and hugged patrons. Outside, supporters held signs that read “Please Run 4 President” and “Cotton to Congress to White House,” alluding to his biography.
“It is always good to come home,” Mr. Scott said to applause.
But Mr. Scott has already gotten a taste of the added pressure that comes with being a possible presidential contender. At stops in Iowa and New Hampshire this week, the senator did not directly answer reporters’ questions about which abortion restrictions he might support as president, at one point saying he would support a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks and another time offering a vague answer, only claiming that he was anti-abortion.
In an interview with NBC News on Friday, he promised to sign “the most conservative, pro-life legislation” that Congress passes if elected president, without throwing his support behind a specific time frame.
Mr. Scott will travel to Iowa and New Hampshire again next week and told reporters he also planned to make stops in Nevada in coming weeks. When asked if he was considering a presidential campaign to juice a vice-presidential nod — a belief his advisers widely reject — he disputed the claim with an air of optimism.
“If you’re going to go for it, go for it all,” he said. “Period.”