S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster said Thursday that more people would back Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump if they got to meet the man away from the television cameras.
“(I)f you get to spend a few minutes with him, he is a thoughtful, bright, gentle, very considerate man,” McMaster told The State, a day after endorsing Trump at a Lexington County rally. “It’s a different impression from the one you get if you just watch him in the debates or watch him on television.”
“He’s not a bomb thrower, not an impulsive man,” McMaster said. “He listens. He seeks advice. He’s very gentle, fine manners, very courteous.”
McMaster’s endorsement came as a surprise. The former state attorney general, U.S. attorney and S.C. GOP chairman is seen as one of the state’s ultimate political insiders, yet he’s backing Trump, who has not served in elected office and is running for the White House as the anti-politician-in-chief.
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“Experience in politics is not always the deciding factor,” said McMaster, who met with Trump several times backstage at his rallies. “I concluded that Donald Trump is the leader we need for this time in our history.”
Endorsing Trump could have an upside for the lieutenant governor. Being the first statewide politician to back the New York billionaire developer could land the lieutenant governor a cabinet post or an ambassadorship in a Trump administration, S.C. political observers said.
McMaster said he did not know if backing Trump might hurt a potential 2018 run for governor when Republican Gov. Nikki Haley completes her final term. Many of his top financial backers are behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an establishment favorite whose father and brother won the S.C. Republican presidential primary en route to the White House.
“You’re talking about the distant future in politics,” McMaster said. “I think what we all ought to try to do is make our choice carefully for the man or woman we think can be the best president for these times. And this is my choice.”
McMaster had backed U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham before the Seneca Republican dropped out of the presidential race on Dec. 21. McMaster said the other White House contenders were all qualified, but he felt Trump has the best chance to win in November.
“Donald Trump has something extra. He has an appeal to the people that is something unusual,” McMaster said. “(Former President Ronald) Reagan had an enormous appeal, but it was not the excitement of the people you see with Donald Trump.
“Times have changed. There’s something different. I think people sense we need a strong, determined leader who won’t back down. And somebody who will say exactly what he means and mean what he says. People view him speaking the truth without sugar coating.”
The lieutenant governor already had a Trump supporter in his home. McMaster said his wife, Peggy, “fell in love when we met him in Greenville (in August).”
Graham, who has been one of Trump’s harshest critics, said he was surprised by McMaster’s new 2016 favorite.
“I don’t know what Henry’s thinking but I admire Henry McMaster,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I think he will be helpful to Mr. Trump. He will give him legitimacy, sort of, in the establishment lane.”
After backing Graham, McMaster was expected to endorse Bush, an establishment favorite who called McMaster to win his support.
“He saw Trump has a comfortable lead here, and it was a comfortable thing for him to do,” said Barry Wynn, a former S.C. GOP chairman, who is state co-chair for Bush.
The lieutenant governor also said he received calls from two other establishment presidential hopefuls, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He did not hear from U.S Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the leading establishment candidate in the race, though he spoke with representatives from his campaign.
McMaster said he called Haley, one of his allies, before announcing his Trump endorsement on Wednesday, but he did not speak with the governor, who has criticized Trump for his combative campaigning. The governor, considered a favorite to make vice presidential short lists, has not endorsed a 2016 favorite.
Trump has earned his top spot in the campaign after criticizing a U.S. senator for being a former prisoner of war, saying undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists, and calling out his GOP competitors for being corrupt.
Trump has said he will not participate in a GOP debate on Thursday because Fox News kept anchor Megyn Kelly, whom he called a bimbo, as a moderator.
But he non-politically correct approach has struck a nerve with voters, who believe the one-time reality television star can fulfill his promises to make the country safe from terrorists, protect religious freedoms and improve the economy after two terms under Democratic President Barack Obama.