S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster spoke without a microphone as he walked between tables where mostly Lexington County Republicans had just finished eating plates of barbecue dinner.
McMaster praised South Carolina and its economic promise before telling a story about how he was the first Republican statewide elected official in the nation to endorse then-candidate Donald Trump before the state's pivotal GOP presidential primary.
"Donald Trump is different. He doesn't believe in political correctness. He believes in strong people," McMaster said to a crowd of about 75 people gathered on the patio of Hudson's Smokehouse, closed Monday but for the private meeting of the Lexington County Republican Party.
The barbecue joint has been a popular stop for GOP candidates — including Republican presidential hopefuls — eager to win the support of Lexington Republicans, one of the largest conservative voting blocs in the state.
The stakes are high, McMaster knows.
The Columbia Republican finished third out of four in the 2010 Republican primary for governor. That contest ultimately delivered the job to Nikki Haley, then a little-known Lexington state representative. Last year, as the state's second-in-command, then Lt. Gov. McMaster took over for Haley when she resigned to become United Nations ambassador.
Lexington voters cast nearly 35,000 ballots in the latest GOP primary for governor in 2010, trailing only Greenville's participation in that contest. Of those votes, Haley won more than 18,300. McMaster was Lexington's second choice, taking home 7,200 votes.
And a third of Lexington's 167,746 registered voters — or 54,929 — cast ballots in the 2016 GOP presidential nominating contest, trailing only Greenville, whose voters cast 94,000 ballots in the Republican primary, and Charleston, which surpassed Lexington by a mere 185 votes.
Lexington also is the county that produced Haley. Then a little-known state representative, Haley fought through a dirty campaign, taking the GOP establishment by surprise and then beating the Democratic nominee to become the state's first female, minority governor.
As the nation's top diplomat, Haley has been quiet in the GOP race for governor, where McMaster faces four primary opponents: Mount Pleasant Republican Catherine Templeton, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and Greenville businessman John Warren.
But one of her top campaign advisers, Tim Pearson, now is McMaster's top strategist. And also bringing experience to his effort, Scott Farmer, a longtime alum of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's campaigns, is managing McMaster's ground game.
McMaster is not the only candidate making rounds in Lexington. Templeton, McMaster's chief rival in fundraising, has pitched herself as a native daughter of Lexington, holding a campaign event in the front yard of her childhood home and a press conference at the home of a West Columbia supporter.
A big field, many voters undecided
On Monday at Hudson's, several attendees said they were still undecided, reflecting a recent poll that found that 35 percent of likely GOP voters have not picked a favorite in the primary for governor.
They include Marilyn Bundrick, who has long known McMaster and said she’s one of the longest standing members of the Lexington GOP. Bundrick said she’s impressed with Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, an underdog in the race in fundraising and polling. “He’s a good Christian guy and he’s pro-life," she said.
If the primary were today, Rob Watts, a Lexington teacher, said he would vote for McMaster, “a perennial favorite. He's well loved in these parts," and, Watts added, "you know where he stands."
Also undecided, Kizzi Gibson of Lexington and her mother Bretta Staley of Orangeburg came to hear McMaster speak and shared a few words with the governor after his Q&A, where he fielded questions about illegal immigration, the ongoing nuclear debacle, how to make schools safer and other issues facing the state.
Gibson, a member of the Lexington-based West Metro Republican Women, said she's been researching all the candidates. Freedom to practice her faith, and pro-life and traditional marriage are top issues to her and ones the candidates, whoever she picks, seem to support.
“I like what I see,” she said.