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Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott takes a step toward a presidential bid

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Let's turn to politics now. The Republican presidential field for 2024 is starting to take shape. Former President Donald Trump, of course, is in and is considered the front-runner. And today, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott took another step of his own bid, announcing an exploratory committee. That allows him to raise money while testing the waters. Joining us to discuss the 2024 Republican field is NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Hey, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey there.

LIMBONG: All right. So let's start with Senator Tim Scott, who's inching towards an official campaign. He's a conservative from a deep red state - South Carolina. He's the only Black Republican in the Senate. What's his pitch to voters?

GONYEA: He makes the case that his life - his success as an African American Republican, as a true conservative - is a testament that Republican policies work for all Americans. He made his announcement today in the form of a video. And in it, he puts race front and center, opening with images of South Carolina's Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired on this very date in 1861. In the video, he says the country is once again being tested and divided, and he blamed Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM SCOTT: Joe Biden and the radical left have chosen a culture of grievance over greatness. They're promoting victimhood instead of personal responsibility. And they're indoctrinating our children to believe we live in an evil country.

GONYEA: And it's worth noting that Senator Scott's reputation has been that of a good-guy, statesman type in the Senate, but he was clearly reaching out to the hardcore base of the GOP with references to the radical left and the liberal agenda.

LIMBONG: Hmm. All right. It's early, but polls seem to show that Senator Scott has a very steep climb to the nomination.

GONYEA: That's - yeah. That's an understatement.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

GONYEA: He's respected, certainly, and has long been mentioned as a possible candidate for national office, but he starts out in the low single digits. Donald Trump clearly the front-runner - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis - again, not yet in the race officially - is right now considered the strongest challenger, enough so that Trump has been attacking him in speeches on social media. And there's a pro-Trump super PAC that's been running spots on cable news, attacking DeSantis. I saw one while watching TV this morning. Here's just a taste of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: DeSantis voted to cut Medicare two times. DeSantis even voted to raise the retirement age to 70. The more you learn about DeSantis, the more you see he doesn't share our values. He's just not ready to be president.

GONYEA: And worth noting here, again, that DeSantis is not yet a candidate, so we don't yet have attack ads on his behalf.

LIMBONG: Mmm hmm. OK. And there's another name from South Carolina to mention outside of Tim Scott - former governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. How does that play in a state that holds its primaries early and where they should both be looking for, like, that home field advantage?

GONYEA: And right now, neither can claim any kind of home field edge. A brand new poll from Winthrop University shows Trump way ahead in South Carolina. In distant second place is DeSantis. Haley is in third, but a close third. Then Scott is way back in single digits.

LIMBONG: Unlike Democrats, Republicans are not shaking up their presidential primary calendar. They're sticking with the Iowa caucuses going first early next year, then New Hampshire, I guess the point being that there's still almost a year of campaigning ahead before people start voting, and so there's a lot that can happen, right?

GONYEA: A lot can and will happen. Campaigning really is only now - just now - kicking into higher gear. People like Haley and Scott are doing traditional campaign stuff in the early states - speeches, town halls, photo-ops with kids, sometimes photo-ops with farm animals, literally. And yes, there's certainly plenty of evidence that reinforces Donald Trump's strength with the core GOP base. Thirty, maybe 35% of the party is with him. And in a crowded field, that's enough to win. The field is starting to grow. And even with a few candidates, if they start to divide the anybody-but-Trump vote, that makes it hard for an alternative to Trump to gain any kind of traction. The other wild card - we don't know how all of Trump's legal problems are going to play out as part of this.

LIMBONG: NPR's Don Gonyea - thanks, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.