The Ever-Growing 2024 Republican Primary Field : The NPR Politics Podcast Tim Scott, the junior senator from South Carolina, kicked off his presidential campaign in North Charleston on Monday, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis is expected to follow suit this week, according to multiple media reports. As the field of Republican candidates takes shape, what will contenders need to do to challenge former president Donald Trump successfully — as well as current president Biden?

This episode: political correspondent Susan Davis, national political correspondent Don Gonyea, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

The podcast is produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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The Ever-Growing 2024 Republican Primary Field

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ROBERT HAMMOND: Hi, this is Robert Hammond (ph). Four years ago, I forgot to give a time stamp when I got my Ph.D., so I went to medical school so I could correct that mistake. This podcast was recorded at...

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

1:48 p.m. on Tuesday, May 23.

HAMMOND: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. I'm about to cross the stage with my MD, where I plan to do anesthesiology. Just wish my sister could have seen it. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: Congratulations, Doctor.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Wow.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Really? That's kind of amazing. MD - my parents would be so proud. And now I'm here.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: We're still proud of you.

MONTANARO: Oh, thanks.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

GONYEA: I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And the 2024 race for the Republican nomination is getting a little more crowded.

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TIM SCOTT: I'm announcing today that I'm running for president of the United States of America.

(CHEERING)

DAVIS: That was Tim Scott, Republican senator from South Carolina, speaking on Monday in North Charleston. He joins fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley in trying to win the Republican nomination.

Don, you covered the announcement. Talk to us about Tim Scott and the vision he outlined in his kickoff.

GONYEA: I mean, here's the thing about Tim Scott. He's not all that well known nationally, despite being a member of the United States Senate. But he's very popular in his home state, and he is very popular in the Senate. He's been there for a decade - before that, the U.S. House; before that, the state House. He even served on the Charleston City Council. So at 57 years of age, he has a long record of public service. And he stressed in his speech - and this is really kind of the meat of his campaign - that he is a real conservative - anti-abortion rights, tax cuts, back the police, protect the border, school choice, all of those things. But he also makes it very clear that he'll be non-Trump-like. He says he wants to be somebody who can bring people together. He does this without mentioning Trump, I should say, too.

MONTANARO: I was just going to say, does he say, I'll do that - I'll be non-Trump-like? No.

GONYEA: He's not the guy who's going to poke a stick in somebody's eye because they looked at him the wrong way, right? So he's an optimist, he says, with a positive message. People who know him like him. He thinks people will like him as a candidate and they'll see that as a breath of fresh air, that kind of approach in today's politics. His demeanor, his tone, his style is also kind of very much steeped in the Baptist church of his youth.

DAVIS: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that, because he talks about his faith all the time. It's sort of central to his story and his identity. And it seems pretty clear from his kickoff that it's going to be central to his campaign.

GONYEA: Oh, yeah. And there are moments where this turned into a big revival tent instead of the college sports arena. He's doing the call and response with voters, with supporters. He leaves the stage, and he's, like, down into the pit, you know, working the room while still shouting things out and getting people to respond to him. So this is not something that you see every political candidate do. And again, it reflects his youth, raised by a single mom, and that Baptist church and its traditions were so important to him growing up.

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SCOTT: I will proclaim these truths from the highest mountaintop, and I will proclaim these truths in the deepest valley. I will take our message to the boardrooms, but I will also take it to the classrooms.

DAVIS: There's something about Scott that is a bit of a throwback to me in terms of...

MONTANARO: I - yeah, I was just going to say. Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Where he comes from in the Republican Party. It seems very anchored in this idea of sort of faith-based conservatism, compassionate conservatism, that kind of harkens back more to the George W. Bush...

MONTANARO: Yep.

DAVIS: ...Pre-Trump era. I don't know if there's room for that in the Republican primary fight these days.

MONTANARO: You know, it's interesting. I mean, it's, like, a 2003 version of the Republican Party and somebody who, pre-Trump, we would have used the phrase happy warrior to talk about Tim Scott. You know, he's not somebody who goes for the jugular on a lot of different things. He is somebody who comes from a faith background, clearly. You can hear that not just in his policies but in his intonation. And, you know, that is very important in a state like Iowa, which, you know, some 60% of the Republican caucusgoers year after year tend to identify themselves as white evangelical Christians. And his message could resonate there. Clearly, he's from South Carolina, the third of that early primary state action that you'll see. And, you know, that is the potential path for a Tim Scott - you know, do well in Iowa or win it and be able to win South Carolina. Of course, the former governor of the state who appointed him to the Senate is also running there, and that could potentially shrink his ability to win there. But he's also got Donald Trump to contend with, who's beating him right now in the polls in his home state.

DAVIS: Can I also ask you, Domenico - I think it's noteworthy when we talk about Tim Scott to talk about his personal life. He's never been married. He's single. He's certainly not the first bachelor to run for the nomination. His fellow South Carolina senator, Lindsey Graham, attempted to do so back in 2016. But that's also an interesting biography to have when you are talking about a base that involves so many evangelical, family-based Christians.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And, you know, this is somebody - like Scott, with a lot of these other candidates - even Haley - they're not as well known nationally as Trump and Biden, right? So that means that there's going to be a lot more defining of his background and a lot more discussion that he's going to have to do about how he grew up, who he is, what his views on religion are, how it informs his policymaking, what his relationship history has been. And Scott is going to have to probably, at some point, talk more openly. And he's talked somewhat openly about it, but he's probably going to have to delve into his personal life quite a bit.

DAVIS: Don, I want to ask you about the nice guys, right? I think it's fair to characterize Tim Scott as a nice guy. I've covered him from the Senate. He's really well liked on Capitol Hill. His temperament is a nice guy. But I wonder - with the voters that you spend time talking to, is there much appetite among Republican voters for the nice guy? I mean, the guys that the Republican voters seem to like are the Donald Trumps, the Ron DeSantises - the combative, stick-it-to-the-libs-type mold of candidate - and I'm curious if there's appetite among the electorate for that.

GONYEA: You really have to pull it out of people to get them to say that maybe our politics have gotten a little bit too harsh, right? They do, especially on the Republican side, especially in these Republican primary contests - they love how Donald Trump and even Ron DeSantis drive Democrats, drive liberals crazy.

DAVIS: Yeah.

GONYEA: And you just don't get that from Tim Scott. Again, it doesn't mean that he's not going to find a path and he's not going to break through because people do like him. But you could also see him being kind of in a box yesterday, right? He doesn't mention Trump at all in this 40-minute speech. He talks about being positive and optimistic and bringing people together, but he never mentions Joe Biden without tying him to the radical left - and Democrats want to destroy our schools and bring critical race theory into everything and defund the police. So you get those kind of harsh attacks, but they are not directed at the guy he needs to get past, which is Donald Trump. Not that those particular attacks would work on Donald Trump, but the notion that we're going to move into kind of a new era of civility - you do have to go after Trump if that's going to be your message. And so far, he's chosen not to.

DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll be back in a second.

And we're back. And Domenico, one of the interesting components about Tim Scott's announcement is how former President Trump reacted to it on his social media platform. He essentially said, welcome, Tim. Welcome to the race.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

DAVIS: I worked really well with him when he was in Congress. Good luck to him - and in the same breath criticized another potential rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who could announce as soon as this week, according to media reports.

MONTANARO: Yeah, he said that, you know, Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious (ph), who is totally unelectable. So, you know, I laughed out loud when I heard that the first time because it's - you know, it's indicative of - and it's clever, but it's indicative of what is going on here in this campaign - who Trump sees as the true threat to his candidacy. And the bigger the field is, the better it is for Trump because he has a pretty significant piece of the pie. I used to say it's made of titanium. Maybe it's, like, melted down a little bit and it's, like, more of an aluminum now or something like that, but - you know? But he still has a fairly significant chunk, and a crowded field helps him. And, you know, if Scott were to suddenly catch fire and was in the 20, 25% range like Ron DeSantis is, you can guarantee that Trump would start to be taking him on. But right now, he's more than happy to see a Tim Scott in this race.

DAVIS: Don, do you get the sense - I mean, obviously, Donald Trump's the front-runner. But do you get the sense from your reporting that anybody else has a chance to come at him?

GONYEA: We've still got many months to go, even before Iowa and New Hampshire and then Nevada and South Carolina, right? And the election is more than 532 days away - I think that's exact.

DAVIS: Do you have, like, a calendar up in your house, Don - days to the election?

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Somebody provided me with some handy notes on that - on the days. But I do have the calendar up with the primaries on it, and the primary calendar actually is not even firmly set.

MONTANARO: And much closer than 532 days.

GONYEA: Yes, that's, like, 7 to 8 months away - the Iowa caucuses. And remember, on the Republican side, the order is the same as it always has been. So we can expect Iowa to New Hampshire and so on. But in terms of whether or not anybody has a chance, sure, things happen. People could get tired of Trump. His legal troubles could get...

DAVIS: Yeah.

GONYEA: ...A lot worse. We don't know what kind of, you know, things he'll get tangled up as it relates to all of that and what could come out in court or who knows what. All of that said, it is a huge climb for any challenger.

I had a conversation with a political scientist at the University of Charleston (ph) this past week. His name is Gibbs Knotts. And he says any of these candidates other than Trump, and maybe especially Tim Scott or Nikki Haley, would scare Democrats in the general. Democrats do not want to face them. But, he says, there's a big catch.

GIBBS KNOTTS: Maybe - just maybe - people have gotten tired of all the fighting. And if they're looking for an alternative, Tim Scott could certainly be that alternative. I will say that Tim Scott and Nikki Haley - you know, either one of them could be really good general election candidates. I mean, they've shown an ability to get - to win the suburban vote, to win votes from independents. I mean, I think they do have the ability to win in some of those closely contested places that Trump is going to have more trouble in. He certainly had trouble in 2020, and I think that Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, if they could somehow figure out how to get the nomination, could have the potential to be really strong general election candidates.

DAVIS: Domenico, that raises a good point. I mean, we have already talked a lot on the podcast about how a crowded field helps Trump. The polls show Trump is the front-runner. But don't the polls also show that a big chunk of the Republican electorate are looking for someone else that isn't Donald Trump?

MONTANARO: It does, and it's why a crowded Republican field more helps Trump than hurts him and could provide him a path. You know, we've seen repeatedly that there is an opening. You know, more than half the Republican Party seems to be open to someone else, especially college-educated suburban Republicans. But Trump still has very, very high favorability ratings within the party. You know, at the same time, could some of these things - legal troubles that he's had - potentially mount and potentially hurt him? Maybe. It's kind of tough to see how that will be the case considering all of the things that have been proven when it comes to Trump and just how much Republican base voters parrot a lot of what he says as a tax. And, you know, I would say we shouldn't dismiss a Tim Scott or a Nikki Haley. They do have potential paths - and especially because they have very, very good chances of being vice president.

DAVIS: (Laughter) Good point. All right, we will be back in your feed soon, and maybe even sooner than you think with an official Ron DeSantis announcement.

But before we go, I want to note that we've started our interviews of 2024 presidential candidates here on the podcast. Last week, Asma Khalid and I talked to Republican Vivek Ramaswamy, and you can find that interview in your feed if you missed it. And we're hoping to talk to more of the candidates as the campaign goes on.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

GONYEA: I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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