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SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Sen. Tim Scott is beloved by congressional colleagues, complimented by voters who see him as “really nice,” and even praised by his rivals — including barb-trader-in-chief Donald Trump.
But being Mr. Nice Guy might be one reason why Scott struggled to break through at last month’s GOP presidential debate. And Wednesday’s second debate is going to be another test of Scott’s bet that the nice guy won’t finish last — a bet he’s answering for on the campaign trail, too.
At recent town halls across Iowa, one voter asked Scott, “What makes you think you’re not too nice to do the job that needs to be done?” Another questioned if Russian President Vladimir Putin “would be afraid of you? Because you seem like a really nice guy.”
Scott first reached for his biography to answer: “My friends were shot, buried or locked up,” he said. “I’m tough enough. I think being tough is having, like, a laser focus, getting things done — not shouting and screaming. The loudest voices are sometimes the quietest on the issues that matter the most.”
The loudest voices also got the most speaking time at the first Republican debate, and Scott seemed absent from the conversation at times, unable to get a word in amid the attacks flying between his opponents. In the month since that debate, Scott’s average showing in national GOP primary polls has dropped 1 percentage point, from 3.6% to 2.5%, according to FiveThirtyEight. He has also scored lower on average in Iowa and New Hampshire polls taken after the debate than before, and he is now facing more competition on the airwaves in both states after advertising consistently through the summer.
But ahead of the second debate, Scott’s team is pushing back against the idea that he has to change his approach. His campaign manager argued in a new memo to donors and allies that “a few snappy lines on national television don’t change the fundamentals of a campaign” for president. They are not pointing to horse race polls that show him leading — there are none — but instead to candidate favorability ratings, which show Scott with the highest spread in the GOP field between Republicans who have favorable opinions of him and the relative few who view him negatively.
One senior Scott adviser told NBC News that it’s not a question of Scott adding more “aggression” to the mix but offering contrast to other candidates where he sees it.
In recent weeks, the South Carolina senator has shown new willingness to call out his rivals by name on issues including abortion and Israel policy. Adding Trump’s name to that mix this month, he criticized the former president for not supporting a federal abortion ban and repeatedly expressing an interest in working with “both sides” to reach an agreement on the issue. The criticism marked a new inflection point for Scott, who has praised the former president in the past.
Still, though Scott’s team argues for staying the course, some allies concede the last debate wasn’t his best showing. One ally chalked it up to “Tim being the Southern gentleman that he is — not trying to talk over people, allowing people to speak.”
“I know his mom had a conversation with him,” Maurice Washington, a longtime Scott ally and former chair of the Charleston County Republican Party, surmised. “Mom probably said, ‘Look, I know I raised you to be a good Southern gentleman. When others are not playing by the same kind of rules, perhaps you need to elevate with a little bit more force.’”
“A little bit more polite aggressiveness will come out of him. I’m convinced of that,” Washington continued.
“I expect you’ll see a more spirited performance from him” this time, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told NBC News, giving a hearty laugh when asked if his colleague was “too nice” to be on the debate stage. Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, was one of Scott’s early endorsers for president.
“The moderators didn’t do him any favors at the last debate, but you do have to create your own opportunities and I think he’ll be looking for chances to do that,” Thune said.
That sentiment was shared by other Scott allies on Capitol Hill.
“Tim comes from a rough neighborhood,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who also endorsed his colleague earlier this year. “Being courteous and nice doesn’t mean that you’re not tough. And sometimes the guy that speaks softly can carry a really big stick.”
Scott said much the same thing to the voters he saw in Iowa recently.
“I’m as nice as I am mean,” Scott said. “I prefer the nice side, but I don’t mind mixing it up if I have to.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com