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Natalie Allison

In South Carolina homecoming, Haley’s ‘town hall’ turns into a full-blown rally

GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, in Bluffton, S.C. | Meg Kinnard/AP

BLUFFTON, S.C. — Waiting for Nikki Haley inside a college gymnasium on Monday, 2,500 people packed into folding chairs and onto bleachers, dancing and waving signs to the beat of “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Crazy Train.”

Outside, a line of hundreds more in quarter-zip pullovers and sweater vests snaked around the building on a weekday afternoon, turned away by public safety officials who said the event was already at capacity.

Billed as a “town hall,” Haley’s return to her home state of South Carolina on Monday instead exploded into a full-blown rally — a triumphant return for the former governor who has surpassed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in polling in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary and is running neck-and-neck with him in Iowa.

“I’ll just stand outside and watch it on the screen,” said Randy Wynne, a 55-year-old from Bluffton who was among those being blocked from entering before they could even reach the door.

The event — Haley’s first in the state since her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, dropped out of the race earlier this month — served as a mark of Haley’s ascent in the GOP primary. But if there is anywhere critical for Haley to top the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, it will be in her home state. And the former president, who drew overwhelming cheers in South Carolina when he walked onto the field during the South Carolina-Clemson Palmetto Bowl game over the weekend, is still running 30 points ahead of her here.

“Trump certainly has a very committed core constituency — that’s undeniable,” said Chad Walldorf, a South Carolina Republican donor who is now backing Haley after first supporting Scott. “Certainly any politician would appreciate that as a committed base.”

But, Walldorf said, “The question going forward is, is that half of the Republican electorate? I think ultimately it will prove not to be.”

Haley does have a burst of momentum. Following Scott’s departure and with DeSantis bleeding support, Haley is the one candidate to whom new donors and supporters are flocking in the primary’s undercard race. And for Republicans desperate to block Trump from gaining the nomination, South Carolina’s early primary may be crucial.

For all the focus now on Iowa and New Hampshire, said Republican donor Frank Lavin, “South Carolina is going to assume critical importance.”

Lavin, the former White House political director for Ronald Reagan, also initially supported Scott in the primary and confirmed first to POLITICO on Monday that he is now backing Haley. In addition to cutting a check, Lavin has consulted with both Haley’s policy and finance teams, is organizing a February fundraiser for her in San Francisco and will run as a Haley delegate in California.

Trump, Lavin said, “has done a good job, to date, of prevailing despite a lot of headwinds, despite all sorts of concerns about his legal issues, potential health issues, electability issues.”

Given that, her supporters acknowledge that a Haley success story largely depends on Trump’s actual strength with Republican primary voters being something less than what poll after poll has shown for months.

GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley takes selfies with supporters after a campaign event on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, in Bluffton, S.C. | Meg Kinnard/AP

“I think there’s going to be a reckoning as we get into next year, and that some of his poll numbers are overstated, and some of his results are going to be less than what the numbers currently represent,” Lavin said.

The numbers so far are still overwhelmingly with Trump. His campaign zeroed in on South Carolina — the fourth early-voting state after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — from the early days of his 2024 presidential bid, announcing in January a slate of high-level endorsers that included the state’s Republican governor and senior senator, despite Haley and Scott at the time openly eyeing campaigns of their own.

Trump boasts endorsements from 80 current and former elected officials in South Carolina — more than any other Republican in the race — and has mobilized supporters in the state to knock on doors and make phone calls daily, said Austin McCubbin, Trump’s South Carolina state director.

McCubbin dismissed Haley’s recent momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire, calling her a “paper tiger” with “a lot of tough talk.”

“She has been languishing in the teens this entire time in South Carolina, and she has yet to break out,” McCubbin said. “As Tim dropped out and DeSanctimonious is proving to be the greatest thing that ever happened to the legacy of Jeb Bush's campaign memory, that support is coming our way, not hers.”

Haley’s rise in national polling and in the early states is undisputed. But it remains to be seen whether her surge will do any significant damage to Trump’s lead.

Inside — and outside — the packed campus recreation center, a significantly larger venue than the brewery that the campaign had initially scheduled for the Bluffton event, many in the crowd made it clear they were never considering supporting Trump in the primary, suggesting Haley’s support is not necessarily denting his.

“I’m an independent, I’m interested in a woman president, and I don’t want Trump again,” said Dale Wagner of Sun City, who said she intends to vote in the state’s Republican primary for Haley, the only woman in the race.

Ruth Gardner, another Sun City resident, said she was impressed by Haley’s debate performance and foreign policy experience, and appreciated that she is from South Carolina. Asked if she had at any point considered supporting Trump in the primary, Gardner’s eyes widened. Her artisan earrings moved with her head as it shook.

“I didn’t vote for the man the first time because he treats women like garbage,” Gardner said.

Across the gymnasium, Mary Burdy of Bluffton had a nearly identical response: “He doesn’t belong in politics.”

“I’m a Republican, and I didn’t vote for him last time, and I didn’t vote for Biden,” Burdy said.

Supporters wave signs ahead of a campaign event for GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, in Bluffton, S.C. | Meg Kinnard/AP

Like most other Republicans seeking the nomination, Haley has resisted full-on attacks against Trump, alternating between praise for some of his past policies and criticism of his personality and leadership qualities.

“The truth is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” Haley said Monday, using a line that she has begun to employ regularly on the campaign trail. “You know I’m right. Chaos follows him.”

The crowd let out nervous laughter. Some started to applaud. Then the applause built across the room.

“You look at the recent polls — Donald Trump beats Biden by three to four points. I beat Biden by 10 to 13 points,” Haley continued.

The crowd erupted into cheers.

But Haley’s strategy of not entirely isolating the pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party appears to be warranted. Not every Haley fan in the room on Monday was down on Trump.

Russ Burdy, attending with his wife, Mary, said he is still undecided ahead of the state’s February primary, and is torn between backing the former president and Haley. He didn’t have any strict criteria about what would sway him.

His wife, Mary Burdy, mouthed her analysis after his interview.

“He’ll vote for her too.”

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