Senator Tim Scott’s most viral debate moment didn’t actually happen during the debate. It came shortly afterward.
Mr. Scott, the affable yet awkward South Carolina lawmaker, has been pressed during his campaign with questions about his unmarried status, as he has focused on his faith and his commitment to conservative family values.
He has repeatedly given vague answers about being in a relationship with a woman, but a significant other had not campaigned with him.
On Wednesday night when the Republican presidential debate ended — a time when candidates are regularly greeted onstage by spouses and other relatives — Mr. Scott stunned observers when he appeared arm-in-arm with a longhaired blonde woman in a gray pantsuit who smiled widely as they posed for photos.
She was later identified by a person close to the campaign as Mindy Noce, Mr. Scott’s girlfriend and a design and renovations manager for a real estate company in the Charleston, S.C., area. In the spin room after the debate, a tight-lipped Mr. Scott confirmed that the mystery woman was his girlfriend and that they had been seeing each other for “about a year or so.”
The moment grabbed more attention than anything Mr. Scott said during the debate did, an unfortunate metaphor for his presidential run. Even the pictures taken at his debate lectern with his girlfriend had the feel of being the final souvenirs from a stalled campaign.
Mr. Scott entered the race as an underdog, but had proven to be a strong fund-raiser with the party’s base of online, small-dollar donors. His Sunday-school style of conservatism has yet to resonate even with evangelicals in Iowa, home of the party’s first nominating contest.
Still, Mr. Scott, who champions himself as a “happy warrior,” remains an optimist. When asked by NBC News if this was his last debate, he referred to the next debate in December in Alabama, saying, “Thirty days from now in Alabama, we’ll be hanging out having a conversation. I’ll be on the stage.”
The emergence of Mr. Scott’s companion onstage, like her emergence in the campaign itself, took a while.
Immediately after the debate concluded and other candidates were joined by their spouses, Mr. Scott put his arm around his mother, Frances Scott, and posed for a picture behind the lectern he had used during the debate.
He walked along the edge of the stage and squatted for selfies with fans in the audience. He chatted with supporters. He stood and stared out into the crowd, seeming to take in the moment.
He took more pictures with his nephew, Ben Scott.
Finally, after most of his rivals and their families had left the stage, Mr. Scott was joined at his lectern by Ms. Noce.
Mr. Scott pointed out a step, taking care that she did not trip. They stood side by side, wrapped their arms around one another’s back and smiled for pictures.
Mr. Scott held onto her hand as she turned to walk offstage, as if he did not want to let go.
Nicholas Nehamas and Maya King contributed reporting.