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The latest on the GOP campaign trail in South Carolina — and what voters are saying

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The 2024 Republican presidential field continues to narrow. Earlier today, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said he's dropping out of the race. The remaining top GOP candidates keep making their pitch to voters in early primary states.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RON DESANTIS: And I'm the only one running for president who's beat the left on issue after issue.

NIKKI HALEY: We have too much division in this country and too many threats around the world to be sitting in chaos once again.

SHAPIRO: That was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaking in recent days from South Carolina. Gavin Jackson of South Carolina Public Radio in Columbia is here to talk about what he's been seeing on the campaign trail. Hey, Gavin.

GAVIN JACKSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: South Carolina's got the first-in-the-South presidential primary for the GOP on February 24. So who from the GOP presidential field have you recently seen in the state?

JACKSON: So those clips of Haley and DeSantis represent the most activity we've been seeing and hearing the past few weeks. Notably absent, GOP frontrunner former President Donald Trump, and that's because, frankly, he just hasn't been here that much. Now, Haley and DeSantis, who haven't been polling behind Trump, appear somewhat monthly. They had a - Haley had a town hall this past Monday, which turned into a full-blown rally with some 2,500 folks in the low country area of the state. That was her largest crowd to date. And then DeSantis, well, he had three well-attended events across the state on Friday. So a pretty solid showing all around.

But Trump continues running like he's an incumbent here since he enjoys strong support and major endorsements. He recently attended the University of South Carolina v. Clemson University football game, but didn't give any remarks. It was just an appearance. In fact, he's only had two rallies here this year. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy haven't visited the state that much either. Instead, their campaigns are focused on New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you talk to Republican voters in South Carolina, what issues do they say are most important to them?

JACKSON: So, Ari, it's been kind of fascinating to hear from folks because unprompted, they'll tell you abortion is their top issue. This is especially among Haley's supporters because they fear a repeat of what happened last month, which brought victories to Democrats and supporters of abortion rights across states like Ohio and Kentucky. I spoke with Veronica Wetzel (ph) and others who told me last week in Bluffton that they're worried about what that could mean for Republicans next year.

VERONICA WETZEL: My biggest worry is not addressing the abortion issue, which I think is going to tank our party. And she had the best thing to say about it at the last debate, which is, like, let the women decide.

JACKSON: So, yeah, while Haley would sign a federal abortion ban if it can pass Congress, she's also been up front about how hard passing such a bill would be.

SHAPIRO: We mentioned that Haley is a former U.N. ambassador. We should say she is also a former governor of South Carolina, and she's gotten some recent endorsements. How has that affected the dynamic on the campaign trail?

JACKSON: Well, it's still very early, but while she may not have received the big endorsements of the popular Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds or evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats like DeSantis did, she did get a huge boost from AFP - that's Americans for Prosperity Action - which is an arm of the Koch brothers' conservative network. And they're going to pour money into advertising and organization efforts in these early voting states. In fact, I'm already seeing some of those ads pop up on my Instagram feed here in South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: The next Republican primary debate is this week. Are voters in South Carolina actually watching these events, especially since they haven't included Donald Trump?

JACKSON: So the ones that attend these political rallies certainly are tuning in because they're looking for someone besides Trump. Many say, some begrudgingly, that they'll support him if he's the nominee, but they're worried about Trump's electability in a general election. At a recent DeSantis town hall, Peter Prim (ph) shared his advice on what DeSantis needs to do.

PETER PRIM: Well, I would like to see him spell out how is he going to overcome the hurdle of always-Trumpers and get on the Republican ticket?

JACKSON: Yeah. So Peter isn't alone in that notion. And several political watchers here say if candidates are to break out, they need to start hitting Trump harder, which is easier said than done. But we'll find out Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa.

SHAPIRO: That's Gavin Jackson of South Carolina Public Radio. Thank you.

JACKSON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gavin Jackson
Gavin Jackson graduated with a visual journalism degree from Kent State University in 2008 and has been in the news industry ever since. He’s worked at newspapers in Ohio, Louisiana and most recently in South Carolina at the Florence Morning News and Charleston Post and Courier. His career as a multi-faceted journalist began in 2011 at the Morning News where he wrote, shot photos and video for daily stories in print, online and broadcast. His local political coverage got him hired onto The Post and Courier’s Statehouse bureau team in fall 2015. He covered the presidential primaries, Gov. Nikki Haley, the legislature and more. South Carolina ETV hired him in 2017 as their only news and public affairs reporter in an effort to grow SCETV’s news presence.