SPRINGDALE — John Warren is in a box.

The Greenville businessman can criticize his Republican governor runoff foe, Gov. Henry McMaster, for any number of things, but he can't argue much about the headliner at McMaster's rally Monday: President Donald Trump.

Like almost all S.C. GOP candidates, Warren has pledged support for Trump. As congressman Mark Sanford learned this month, going against the president is political suicide in a state where Trump holds an 80 percent approval rating among Republicans.

Greeting voters at a Shoney's restaurant a half-mile from where Trump would speak later Monday, Warren sought to deflect the impact of president's visit on the race and focus on what he described as McMaster's shortcomings, such as being an unelected governor with no major accomplishments.

“He has no ideas,” Warren said midway through a five-stop statewide tour on the day before Tuesday's runoff. “He’s got a 30-year track record and he can’t tell you anything he’s accomplished. The best thing he can tell you is he hasn’t screwed it up. And I think that’s a weak message.”

Warren also rebuked McMaster and outside political groups for a recent wave of attack ads.

“It ticks me off,” Warren said. “Ultimately, they’re lies. They’re lies on behalf of a desperate career politician who is terrified that he is going to have to go out and work for a living like the rest of us.”

Warren, 39, has described himself as the most Trump-like GOP candidate for governor as an entrepreneur with no political experience. Still, Warren said he even expected many of his supporters to attend the rally for a president that he respects.

“Because they’re supporters of the president,” he said. “They’re not supporters of Henry McMaster."

Warren has done well in his first campaign. Aided with $3 million of his own money that allowed him to hire consultants who worked on Trump's presidential campaign, he passed a top competitor in the last month for a spot in the runoff. Now he's made the runoff close enough that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence traveled to South Carolina for McMaster, a 71-year-old who voters consider friendly but generates little excitement.

Warren's internal polling suggests he's in the lead, but surveys from a pro-McMaster pollster, as well as private polling shared with The Post and Courier, show the governor in command. Most South Carolina political watchers expect a narrow McMaster win on Tuesday after he received 53,000 more votes than Warren in the June 12 primary. 

Since the primary, Warren has received a quick boost with endorsements from a pair of former gubernatorial rivals and the top six GOP vote-getters in an Upstate congressional race.

But he also went quiet at a time when getting himself to voters was crucial, political observers say. Warren held private meetings during the first weekend after the primary, giving McMaster little reason to hit the trail against a political newcomer who entered the race four months ago.

Warren came back early last week with a new aggressive tone against McMaster.

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He started airing an ad attacking the governor for backing a hike in state pension contributions that he believes will lead to tax hikes. In campaign stops, he highlighted McMaster's "pay-to-play" culture of giving board seats to campaign donors, as well as his ties to figures in the Statehouse corruption probe.

Warren also got his first help from a third-party group in an ad that dinged McMaster, a former attorney general and lieutenant governor, as a career politician.  

Taking an aggressive stance in the final days before an election is standard practice when candidates are trying to drive voters to the polls. This is even harder in a runoff, where around one in every 10 eligible voters are expected to cast a ballot.

As Warren walked around the Springdale Shoney's with wife Courtney at lunch time, he found supporters, including Craig Wheatley, a 30-year-old high school teacher from Lexington who switched his backing from McMaster to Warren because the newcomer is vocal about issues regarding education.

“I like our governor,” Wheatley said. “But I feel like (Warren) is what we need for the future.”​

Marie Leonard, a lifelong independent who voted for Trump, supports Warren because of his experience as a Marine combat officer who fought in Iraq.

“He’s gutsy,” said Leonard, 81.

Asked what he would say to Trump if he met him, Warren said, “I look forward to working with you come January.”

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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