Haley and McMaster represent GOP’s struggle for unity in presidential election

Gov. Nikki Haley speaking in May at the Tennessee Republican Party’s 2016 Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville, Tenn.

CLEVELAND — Is this presidential election about electing Donald Trump, or defeating Hillary Clinton?

Republicans are divided on this question and South Carolina delegates are no exception. As it turns out, the Palmetto State’s highest-ranking elected officials are distances apart.

Gov. Nikki Haley and Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster spoke back to back at Wednesday morning’s S.C. delegation breakfast. Haley, who endorsed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida during the presidential primary, didn’t say Trump’s name once in her remarks.

“A ‘no’ vote in November is a vote for Hillary Clinton,” said Haley, who also told delegates she was in Cleveland “to support all of you.”

McMaster, who delivered a nominating speech for Trump at the Republican National Convention the night before, immediately followed Haley with strong words for fellow delegates who have not yet embraced the party’s candidate for commander-in-chief.

“I know that not everybody here was for Donald Trump,” McMaster said. “He might not be the one for you. But as of last night, he is. He is the nominee of our party.

“We have to say we’re behind him,” he continued, “like we do with our other candidates.”

None of this is really a tectonic plate shift. Haley and Trump have been trading barbs since she called him out for his incendiary rhetoric in her State of the Union rebuttal; McMaster was the first elected official to endorse Trump earlier this year.

More significant perhaps is the fact that at this point in the election cycle there are still top Republicans unable to say Trump’s name, even as the possibility of a Clinton presidency looms larger.

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who endorsed Rubio during the primary and has called some of Trump’s remarks “racially toxic,” offered his most public support of a Trump presidency to date at Wednesday’s breakfast.

“Our answer to what ails us will happen on November the 8th when Donald Trump becomes the president,” Scott said.

The same slow pace to form ranks is true for some other delegates representing South Carolina in Cleveland. State Rep. Alan Clemmons, for example, told The Post and Courier on Monday he had only come around to Trump within the past 10 days surrounding a collaboration on the Israel plank of the party platform. Many delegates have been talking throughout the week about the importance of unity, not just against Clinton but for Trump, and expressing a hope that state elected officials would lead by that example.

Bill Pickle, a delegate from Florence, said he appreciated Haley’s philosophy at this point, namely, “if you haven’t got something good to say about somebody, maybe you shouldn’t say it at all.” But he also said he appreciated Scott’s explicit support of Trump rather than praising him only in the abstract.

“We’re hearing from 50 or so people tonight at the convention, and I’m hoping we will hear from a majority of them something positive and reinforcing our candidate,” Pickle said. “He is our candidate now.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said he understood where Haley was coming from. “A number of us — and I put myself in this category — are reluctantly moving in Trump’s direction. It certainly wasn’t our starting point.”

K.C. Lombard, a delegate from Charleston, has steeled himself to be loyal to the party, despite misgivings about the candidate. He suggested that Haley’s commentary on the presidential election is in keeping with the overall tone of the convention.

“A lot of people have been communicating to me that the message they’re hearing from this convention is ‘Stop Hillary.’ Not a lot of talk about issues, not a lot of talk about principles. A lot about, ‘we can’t have Hillary,’” Lombard said. “Now, I don’t disagree with that at all, and frankly we don’t have a candidate who is deeply issues-oriented.”

S.C. GOP Chairman Matt Moore, who thanked Haley for visiting with the South Carolina delegation instead of the Iowa contingent — a hint at her possible longer-term political ambitions — said he wasn’t bothered by Haley’s Trump omission.

“I don’t think we should expect every elected official to have the same exact set of talking points about every issue and candidate,” Moore said, adding that Haley has been “very positive” about the inclusion of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as the ticket nominee for vice president.

“She’s talked about turning the page and not allowing Hillary Clinton to have a third term for Barack Obama,” Moore continued. “For me, that’s good enough. It may not be good enough for others, but for me, it’s good enough. She’s here.”

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.