MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Ron DeSantis on Saturday tried to frame his White House campaign as the one that can top GOP front-runner Donald Trump and Nikki Haley in pivotal South Carolina, but some who came out to see him in this coastal tourist mecca said they felt the state was likely to go the former president's way in next month's primary.
It was some of the same sentiment as well in DeSantis' stop at a diner in Florence, where the former Navy officer leaned heavily into his experience as the “only veteran running for president.”
“Everybody’s scared to death of Trump,” said Steven Best, a Trump supporter who said he only came out to see DeSantis because his wife wanted to, citing efforts to remove Trump from the ballot over his attempt to overturn the 2020 election as support for his viewpoint.
“I love his message," said David Steding as he and his wife waited for the Florida governor earlier in Myrtle Beach. “I just don't think he's going to win here."
The Stedings were among hundreds waiting to see DeSantis take the stage at a restaurant just off one of the main thoroughfares in Myrtle Beach. He scheduled two other stops Saturday in a state whose primary has historically been influential in determining the party's nominee.
The events reflect his decision to shift his campaign away from New Hampshire and its leadoff Republican primary on Tuesday, where he is not expected to match his finish in last Monday's Iowa causes, won by Trump with DeSantis edging Haley for second.
At his first appearance, DeSantis jabbed at Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, which holds its primary on Feb. 24. In front of video screens displaying the logos of his campaign and super political action committee, he asked the crowd to "tell me major achievements of Nikki Haley when she was governor? Anybody?”
After someone shouted out “gas tax” — which both DeSantis and Trump have accused Haley of trying to raise during her six years in office — DeSantis said it was notable that "nobody named an achievement.” He said “the hands would shoot up” if people in a Florida crowd were asked to list his accomplishments during just over one term in office.
DeSantis and Trump have argued that Haley, when governor, flip-flopped over her support for a gas tax. A super PAC supporting Trump's campaign has run a TV ad mashing up clips of State of the State addresses in which she opposed, then called for, such a measure. Haley has characterized the critiques as evidence that her opponents, particularly Trump, are threatened by her candidacy.
Both Trump and DeSantis have omitted a significant part of the gas tax proposal Haley floated in 2015. In the speech her opponents have cited, Haley went on to say that, “in order to get my signature on any gas tax increase,” South Carolina would also “need to cut our state income tax by 2%.”
That plan died in the Legislature. South Carolina lawmakers ultimately raised the gas tax under her successor, overriding a veto by Gov. Henry McMaster, Trump’s top backer in the state.
On Saturday, McMaster and Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette were among the South Carolina leaders heading to New Hampshire to appear with Trump at a rally there. Sen. Tim Scott, another South Carolinian, endorsed Trump at a New Hampshire event on Friday night.
Awaiting DeSantis, Julie Maid said that she was ready to support DeSantis in South Carolina, despite Trump's lead.
“DeSantis is a straight shooter, and he'll tell you how it is, but not have the dramatics that Trump does,” Julie Maid said. “DeSantis is my front-runner.”
Standing behind her in line, Steding wasn't so sure.
“I'm here,” said Steding, as he and his wife, Shavonne, moved their way along the line snaking into the venue. “I don't know if I'm going to vote for him. But I'm here.”
James Pollard in Florence, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP