SALEM, N.H. — Roy Williamson, a retired computer programmer from this reliably red town, is feeling anxious about the state of the Republican presidential primary.
He does not want to vote a third time for former president Donald Trump, whom he has come to see as emotionally unstable, undisciplined, and unelectable. His hope that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida might be the strongest alternative has faded as DeSantis has stalled in the polls.
And so he found himself at a packed Elks Lodge on a rainy Tuesday night, kicking the tires on an alternative to the alternative: Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. And he liked what he saw.
“He’s very personable, likable, he seems to just like, relate well to people,” Williamson, 73, said on the way out, adding that he now considers Scott to be one of his top choices.
Scott, 57, has been chugging along in the single digits since announcing his presidential campaign in May, casting himself as a sunny conservative who wants to unify a divided country. And while his oft-discussed Christian faith makes him a more obvious fit for the more religious GOP electorate in Iowa, which he’s visited 18 times since February, Scott and his allies are investing heavily in the flinty first-in-the-nation primary state. They’re gambling the effort could reap rewards, particularly among voters such as Williamson who are casting about for an alternative to Trump.
But unlike some other candidates with low poll numbers, Scott’s war chest signals he’s in it for the long haul.
An analysis published on July 7by the advertising tracking firm AdImpact found Scott and his allies had spent more than any other candidate on advertising in New Hampshire, nearly 40 percent of the $10.3 million spent by all the candidates to that point — and more than Trump and DeSantis combined. He has visited the state eight times since February.
A recent poll from WMUR suggests the effort might be showing at least a small payoff, with the South Carolina senator edging into a distant third place behind Trump and DeSantis, with 8 percent support, while Trump has 37 percent and DeSantis 23 percent.
Internally, Scott and his advisers see his lack of name recognition, especially in comparison to Trump, as his biggest challenge, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s strategy. Their current focus is simply on letting voters get to know him, rather than trying to draw contrasts with his competitors.
Scott has qualified to be on the stage for the first debate, on Aug. 23, and the campaign has reserved $6 million in advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire through that period, while a super PAC supporting Scott has committed to spending $40 million on him in the fall.
“Does he have a path? He’s certainly benefiting right now from not being Ron DeSantis,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, who said Scott has put positive spots about himself on the state’s airwaves while Trump and DeSantis battle more directly, and received little pushback.
The get-to-know-me strategy was on display Tuesday night, where Scott worked the room a few minutes before his speech, merrily shaking voters’ hands and posing for photos — including one taken by a woman whose phone was emblazoned with the word “TRUMP.” His 11-minute stump speech included self-effacing tales of his upbringing in the Deep South and failing several subjects in high school, and he heaped flattery on the state’s mercurial electorate.
“You guys take the process of electing a president seriously — thank you for doing so,” Scott said. “New Hampshire is the place for the first Republican primary in our country and should remain the place for all of America to watch and see.”
Scott then spent nearly an hour taking voters’ questions, making scant mention of his rivals and avoiding discussion of hot-button social issues like abortion rights and transgender rights that play well in Iowa but less so among the more socially libertarian voters here. (Scott has said he would back a 15-week abortion ban and in campaign material makes a point of opposing transgender athletes playing sports.)
Still, Trump’s dominance of the polls here loomed large in the room. One voter, Tony Conte, told Scott he was worried that the size of the field would splinter the electorate and hand the nomination to Trump, who he fears cannot win a general election.
“I think there’s going to be a solidification. I think there’s going to be fewer candidates as we go through the next few months,” Scott assured Conte, who said afterward that he was impressed with Scott and is holding out for whoever can beat Trump.
“If he looks like the strongest candidate, I’ll be happy to vote for him,” Conte said.
Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist who is not involved in the primary, said Scott’s charisma and personal story could give him a chance in New Hampshire, but that right now, it’s “anybody’s race to be the number two guy.”
“Once you emerge as the number two guy, the number one guy is going to beat the crap out of you,” he added.
Scott’s unwillingness to attack Trump was clear when a young voter asked him if the Department of Justice was right to investigate Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his role in the Capitol riots of Jan. 6. Earlier this week, Trump said he had received a letter telling him he was a target of such an investigation.
“The DOJ is in fact weaponizing the tools of our country against their political opponents,” Scott said, adding, “They are hunting Republicans. That is wrong.”
He also echoed some of Trump’s complaints about the 2020 election, calling it a “debacle.”
Still, several voters who are looking for an alternative to Trump see Scott as a worthy option, even though they are worried the former president can’t be beaten. Ed Huminick, a trustee at the Elks Lodge who believes Republicans “have to take our party back,” said he is worried about the low polling numbers of every candidate not named Trump.
He called Scott “the kind of candidate we need, no pissing or vitriol.”
“It’s the way he talked to people. . . . Scott seemed like he really wanted people to know him,” Huminick said, comparing him favorably to DeSantis, who he found “kind of condescending.”
Steve Chopelas, 53, described himself as socially liberal but said he could see himself voting for Scott if he showed an ability to bring people together.
“I’m hoping to see him get enough support to gain on Trump,” Chopelas said, although he added that Trump’s dominance in the polls has left him “very nervous.”
When asked if Trump could be beaten here, Chuck Morse, the former president of the state Senate who lost the primary for the US Senate last year, pointed to the state’s history of upsets.
“I think that’s what New Hampshire’s all about,” Morse said, before recalling how hard he worked in the 2016 primary for Jeb Bush, an early front-runner who flamed out.
“I went with Bush in 2016 and President Trump proved you can do it differently, and we lost,” Morse said.