South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has launched his US presidential campaign, offering an optimistic and compassionate message he is hoping can contrast with the two figures who have used political combativeness to dominate the early Republican primary field: former president Donald Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Mr Scott, the Senate’s only black Republican, kicked off the campaign in his home town of North Charleston, on the campus of Charleston Southern University, his alma mater and a private school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
He repeatedly mentioned his Christian faith in his kick-off speech, crying, “Amen! Amen! Amen!” and at several points drew responses from the crowd, who sometimes chanted his name.
But Mr Scott also offered a stark political choice, saying “our party and our nation are standing at a time for choosing: victimhood or victory”, and adding that Republicans will also have to decide between “grievance or greatness”.
“I choose freedom and hope and opportunity,” Mr Scott said.
He went on to tell the crowd that “we need a president who persuades not just our friends and our base” but seeks “common sense” solutions and displays “compassion for people who don’t agree with us”.
That was a far cry from Mr Trump, who has played to the Republicans’ most loyal supporters with repeated lies about how he was denied a second term by widespread fraud that did not occur during the 2020 presidential election.
Mr DeSantis, meanwhile, has pushed Florida to the right by championing contentious new restrictions on abortion, LGBTQ rights and by seeking to limit the corporate power of Disney, one of his state’s most powerful business interests.
Mr Scott (57) planned to huddle with home-state donors then begin a two-day campaign swing to Iowa and New Hampshire, which go first in Republican presidential primary voting.
His announcement event featured an opening prayer by Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the number two Senate Republican, who said: “I think our country is ready to be inspired again.”
Republican Senator Mike Rounds, South Dakota’s other senator, has already announced his support for Mr Scott.
A number of high-profile Republican senators have already backed Mr Trump’s third bid for the White House, though, including Mr Scott’s South Carolina colleague, Lindsey Graham.
Mr Trump nonetheless struck a conciliatory tone, welcoming Mr Scott to the race in an online post on Monday and noting that the pair worked together on his administration’s signature tax cuts.
A source of strength for Mr Scott will be his campaign bank account.
He enters the 2024 race with more cash on hand than any other presidential candidate in US history, with 22 million dollars left in his campaign account at the end of his 2022 campaign that he can transfer to his presidential coffers.
Mr Scott also won re-election in firmly Republican South Carolina – which has an early slot on the Republican presidential primary calendar – by more than 20 points less than six months ago.
Advisers bet that can make Mr Scott a serious contender for an early, momentum-generating win.
But Mr Scott is not the only South Carolina option.
The state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, who also once served as Mr Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, is also running.
Ben LeVan, a business professor at Charleston Southern who attended Monday’s event, said he had not decided who to support in the Republican primary but did not plan to back Mr Trump.
“I really do hope that we can bring some civility back in politics,” Mr LeVan said.
“That’s one of the nice things about Tim Scott, and quite frankly, Nikki Haley, and some of the other candidates as well. They’re more diplomatic, and that is something that I appreciate.”
Like others in the Republican race, including former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and Woke, Inc author Vivek Ramaswamy, Mr Scott’s initial task will be finding a way to stand out in a field led by Mr Trump and Mr DeSantis, the latter of whom could announce his own bid as early as this week.
One way Mr Scott hopes to do that is his trademark political optimism.
Mr Scott often quotes scripture at his campaign events, weaving his reliance on spiritual guidance into his speeches, and calling his travels before the campaign’s official launch the Faith in America listening tour.
He said on Monday that America’s promise means “you can go as high as our character, our grit, and our talent will take you”.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) responded to Mr Scott’s announcement by dismissing the notion that he offers much of an alternative to Mr Trump’s policies.
DNC chair Jamie Harrison, who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in South Carolina in 2020, released a statement calling the senator “a fierce advocate of the MAGA agenda”, a reference to the former president’s Make America Great Again movement.
On many issues, Mr Scott does indeed align with mainstream Republican positions.
He wants to reduce government spending and restrict abortion, saying he would sign a federal law to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy if elected president.
But Mr Scott has pushed the party on some policing overhaul measures since the killing of George Floyd, and he has occasionally criticised Mr Trump’s response to racial tensions.
Throughout their disagreements, though, Mr Scott has maintained a generally cordial relationship with Mr Trump, saying in his book that the former president “listened intently” to his viewpoints on race-related issues.
When he was appointed to the Senate by then-governor Ms Haley in 2012, Mr Scott became the first black senator from the South since just after the Civil War.
Winning a 2014 special election to serve out the remainder of his term made him the first black candidate to win a statewide race in South Carolina since the Reconstruction era.
He has long said his current term, which runs through until 2029, would be his last.
Mr Scott has long rejected the notion that the country is inherently racist.
He has also routinely repudiated the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework that presents the idea that the nation’s institutions maintain the dominance of white people.
“Today, I’m living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not a land of oppression,” Mr Scott said on Monday.