Scott faces calls to turn up heat at second debate

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is signaling he could be taking a more aggressive approach toward rivals ahead of the second GOP debate next week as he trails several contenders in 2024 polls.

Scott this week took a swipe at former President Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley over the issue of abortion, saying on Fox News they “have all run away from protecting life.” He also jabbed at biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy on Thursday, calling his positions on Israel and Taiwan “wrong.”

It’s a contrast from the optimistic and cordial attitude Scott has so far projected on the campaign trail. But after a lackluster first debate performance, Republicans say Scott might need to change course.

“If [Scott’s] really running for president and not vice president, he absolutely has to take the bark off President Trump — that would show voters his appetite for a fight and serve as proof that he can take on the Democrat machine,” said Arizona-based GOP strategist and Trump campaign alum Brian Seitchik.

At least seven GOP contenders, including Scott, appear to have met the criteria for the second GOP debate, which is scheduled for Wednesday and will be hosted by Fox Business at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Scott and DeSantis largely avoided wading into the squabbling during the first debate. Scott wasn’t shy earlier this year to criticize DeSantis over an updated, controversial Florida educational curriculum that suggested there were benefits to slavery, but many said the senator faded into the background on the debate stage.

“It’s not a secret that he clearly tried to play it safe in the first debate and not interrupt and not interject and not be too combative. But it didn’t move the needle,” explained GOP strategist Alice Stewart, who’s worked on debate prep for former GOP presidential candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Instead, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Haley and Ramaswamy cemented themselves in the foreground of the second Republican presidential debate in a back-and-forth over foreign policy and political experience. 

Meanwhile, participants of the second debate will have to contend yet again with Trump as the elephant not in the room.

The leading GOP hopeful is snubbing the debate for a second time, instead speaking to former and current union workers in Detroit on Wednesday. It’s a move that puts him at the center of a major auto workers strike.

Trump also skipped the first debate in Milwaukee last month, counter-programming the event by releasing an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the same time as the debate.

The second debate offers a critical moment for GOP presidential candidates as the window closes on gaining ground against Trump in the polls.

“Sen. Scott by nature is mild-mannered and friendly, and now’s the time for him to start showing the contrast and maybe push out an elbow or two,” Stewart said. “But you can … effectively make the contrast and comparison without coming across as critical or combative, and that’s what Sen. Scott needs to do.”

A senior Scott official noted the South Carolina Republican took steps to contrast himself with the field right after the first debate and suggested there hasn’t been a change in strategy.

In an interview with Fox News a day after the first debate, Scott called out several of his 2024 rivals for how they handled the issue of abortion during the debate without naming names. 

“This isn’t about anything other than simply trying out contrasts and drawing distinctions. I think that’s a very big difference,” the senior Scott official said.

“There are differences among the candidates and different … policy positions or the like, and I think what Sen. Scott’s doing is just bringing those out and drawing distinctions and contrasts. I don’t think that’s anything in terms of a change in strategy, or … anything along those lines,” the person added.

But those efforts appeared to ramp up earlier this week. On Monday, speaking at a town hall in Mason City, Iowa, Scott again targeted several of his opponents on abortion.

“President Trump said he’d negotiate with Democrats and walk back away from what I believe where we need to be, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level,” Scott said. “Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis all along with President Trump have said they will not name a week where we stop California, New York and Illinois of having abortions on demand.”

In an interview with conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt, Scott criticized Ramaswamy over his views on U.S. involvement with Taiwan and Israel. Haley also generated buzz in the first debate for hitting Ramaswamy on foreign policy, saying: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”

“Vivek, he’s just wrong on this topic. He’s wrong on making sure that we protect Israel until 2028,” Scott told Hewitt. “You cannot put an expiration date on our allies. It’s just dead wrong, and it could lead to the loss of life, and certainly lead to the loss of confidence in the greatest nation on God’s green Earth.”

Ramaswamy has said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan until 2028 when the U.S. has semiconductor independence but later clarified in his position that after 2028, the country would “resume our position of strategic ambiguity.”

On Israel, he said he would negotiate an Abraham Accords 2.0 that would negotiate Israel back in with the Middle East such that further aid to the country would not be necessary after 2028.

Meanwhile, a Wednesday memo from campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper to the executive finance committee, which was first reported by Politico and obtained by The Hill, stressed not to count out the South Carolina Republican ahead of the second GOP debate.

“We saw a lot of ink spilled in the wake of the last debate on ‘who’s up,’ ‘who’s down,’ and how the entire campaign seemingly is won or lost in 90 minutes on a stage in Milwaukee. I’m here to tell you to ignore the noise and focus on the facts in front of us,” DeCasper wrote, noting internal polling they conducted said Scott had the best net favorability amongst the field.

Scott also raised $1 million between events in Charleston and New York City in the 24 hours before the debate, a Scott official said, suggesting there’s still enthusiasm for the candidate.

Some Republicans say they like the more aggressive approach they’re seeing from Scott.

“I like the aggressive approach. I think he needed it after the first debate where he was really kind of on the sidelines,” explained Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.

At the same time, experts acknowledge Scott has to thread the needle on his approach carefully given that he’s cast himself as a positive candidate who still needs to win over Republican primary voters.

“It’s a very difficult tightrope to walk, and I think that there are … competing social demands for candidates like Tim Scott, and [former President] Barack Obama faced similar demands, that almost require him as a candidate to stay positive and optimistic,” said Jacob Thompson, a debate expert and associate vice provost for undergraduate education at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

But even some of Scott’s donors say they think the South Carolina Republican will need to get more assertive heading into the next debate. 

Metals magnate and Republican donor Andy Sabin, who switched to supporting Scott instead of DeSantis, said that during the first debate, Scott “tried to abide by the rules, which, obviously, the people [at] Fox News handling the debate felt that they could get more viewers by just letting it be a free-for-all.”

“I hate to say,” Sabin laughed, “I guess he’s gonna have to — when he hears something coming out of some of the other people — he’s gonna have to interrupt ’em and tell ’em they’re full of shit and tell ’em the way he sees it.”

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Back to top button