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Nikki Haley, Tim Scott compete for homegrown SC support at N. Charleston presidential forum | Palmetto Politics

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NORTH CHARLESTON — When Paul Godwin talks with his friends about the still-growing 2024 Republican presidential field, he says they all say the same thing: “We love Nikki.”

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But after attending the Vision ’24 National Conservative Forum on March 18, Godwin glanced over his shoulder and turned his body away from the crowd. Gripping an “Americans for Prosperity” flying disc in his right hand, he opened his wallet to reveal a silver card that declared his support for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

“There’s a part of me that really would like to see Donald Trump get his dues,” Godwin said, leaning closer to share his thoughts as hundreds of people filed out of the Charleston Area Convention Center.

“But if Trump doesn’t win, from what I saw here today, I do really think Tim Scott would be great,” he added. “He’s such a good guy. What a story.”

Then, his face changed. His eyes widened. 

“But I really do love Nikki Haley,” Godwin said, the words tumbling out of his mouth. “Don’t get me wrong.”

So illustrates the conflicting feelings that tugged at South Carolina GOP primary voters March 18 as they welcomed the first unofficial cattle call of declared and possible contenders in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. 

Even former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is weighing a White House bid of his own and plans to announce his decision in April, acknowledged the invisible battles lines that have been drawn in South Carolina, which is home to Haley, Scott and the “first in the South” presidential primary. 

“Obviously with Senator Scott mulling it over and Ambassador Haley already in, it makes it a little bit complicated,” Hutchinson told The Post and Courier after addressing a ballroom of people who paid anywhere from $44 to $129 to hear him and eight others speak.

Hosted by the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative Christian nonprofit that lobbies for what it describes as “Biblical values” like heterosexual marriage and bans on abortion, the Vision ’24 event drew about 450 people.

But the favorite topic of the day was going after Democrats, and specifically lambasting the left for their so-called “woke” ideology on everything from abortion policy to transgender care for children.

Louisiana U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said Democrats are people who like to get their energy from “Ziploc bags of kale” and who “think our children should be able to change genders at recess.”

“And just for the record,” he said. “I think kale tastes like I’d rather be fat.”

Kennedy was the first of the day’s nine speakers, which included two declared presidential contenders: Haley and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

But the speaker who delivered the most red-meat lines of all, and who invoked God more than any other, was former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. The former Hawaii congresswoman left the Democratic Party last year. She said her former party seeks “to attack and smear those who are people of faith.”

Other speakers held the crowd’s attention, like U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who said “woke is their favorite word.”

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., used part of his time to defend Trump.

Trump has said he expects to be arrested March 21 as New York district attorneys consider charges over hush money payment he reportedly made to a porn star. Graham encouraged him to fight it, and “take it all the way to the damn Supreme Court.”

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan focused most of his remarks on foreign policy, saying America’s own domestic politics, both within the GOP and between the two major parties, threaten the nation’s standing on the world stage.

“We have to take our fingers off our opponents throats. Bear with me,” Rogers said. “I’m talking about people we disagree with in our own party — and our opponents. Russia and China smell weakness. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing. They absolutely smell it.” 

But the main draw of the day was the back-to-back remarks given by Haley and Scott. Both were welcomed with loud standing ovations.

Scott, who seen as a potential presidential candidate, went first. He opted to speak directly to the crowd, abandoning the stage to talk directly at floor-level to attendees.

“The radical left is trying to get people hooked on victimhood,” Scott said, adding that according to Democrats “if you’re White you must be an oppressor. If you’re Black or Brown, you are the victim.”

When Haley walked into the room, Scott walked out. 

“Everybody wants to blame Biden for the situation that we’re in, but our Republicans did this to us too,” Haley said of the economy in general.

She also took another swipe at Washington when she said, “There are no saints in Congress because they don’t understand the value of a dollar.”

Charlie Cutler, who moved to South Carolina from Boston, sat in one of the last three rows waving his hat as Haley and others spoke. He stayed for the entire event.

The West Ashley resident wore a Hawaiian shirt and a camouflage Trump 2020 hat and waved it in the air when he heard lines he agreed with, like whenever anyone talked about being tough on China or called for banning transgender females from participating in women’s sports.

He took his Trump hat off his head.

“You know, I love him but he needs to control his mouth,” Cutler said. “But Haley, she has experience. She’s tough. The things that she says about America, term-limits all that. It’s great.”

Cutler put the hat back on his head, but then he smiled. He said, “I want to get a Haley hat.”

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