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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Lauren Gambino in Charleston and Joan E Greve in Georgetown

Nikki Haley battles steep odds and Trump taunts in home state primary

A collage of Nikki haley and donald trump

Standing before a large crowd outside a waterfront hotel in Georgetown, Nikki Haley confronted the question that many Republicans in her “sweet” home state of South Carolina – and across the country – have asked: why is she still running for president?

“I don’t care about a political future. If I did, I would have been out by now,” she said. “I’m doing this for my kids. I’m doing this for your kids and your grandkids.”

Haley is the last candidate standing between Donald Trump and the Republican nomination he expects to wrap up within weeks.

But her path forward is vanishingly thin, after successive losses to Trump in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, followed by a stinging defeat in Nevada’s non-binding Republican primary in which, despite being the only major candidate on the ballot, Haley finished a distant second to the option labeled “none of these”.

On Saturday, she is bracing for another rebuke, this time at the hands of the very Republican voters who once elevated her to the governor’s mansion. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released this week of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters showed Trump trouncing Haley by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, 63% to 35%.

But Haley has made clear that she has no intention of conceding the nomination – not yet anyway.

Arguing that Americans deserve better than a general election contest between the 77-year-old former president facing 91 criminal indictments and Joe Biden, the deeply unpopular 81-year-old incumbent cruising to his party’s nomination, Haley is asking supporters to stand behind her long-shot bid.

“It’s not normal to pay campaign contributions towards personal court cases. It’s not normal to side with a thug over the allies who’ve worked to protect us,” Haley said in Georgetown, referencing Trump’s latest legal travails and his threat to Nato member states. “None of this is normal, and that’s what we need to have back. Our kids deserve to know what normal feels like again.”


There is no precedent for the kind of come-from-behind victory Haley would have to pull off to win her party’s nod. But she has a history of surprising the political establishment.

In her first run for public office, Haley, then an accountant, upset a nearly 30-year incumbent to win a seat in the state legislature. Years later, she bested a field of better-known Republicans to win the party’s gubernatorial primary and become the first woman and the first person of color elected governor of South Carolina. She was handily re-elected four years later.

A year ago, Haley’s entrance into the presidential race was treated as an afterthought, with polls barely registering her support. But she outlasted Trump’s other rivals, leaving, as she likes to say, just “one fella left” to beat.

“You never count Nikki Haley out. You just don’t,” said Dave Wilson, an unaffiliated Republican strategist in South Carolina. “There is always some sort of political trick or maneuver up her sleeve that makes you go, ‘I just never saw that one coming.’”

Nikki Haley, right, greets people after speaking at the George Hotel in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Thursday.
Nikki Haley, right, greets people after speaking at the George Hotel in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Thursday. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Haley’s refusal to drop out and “kiss the ring” – and nearly all of Trump’s former Republican rivals have – has turned her once again into something of a political outsider in a party that once counted her among its brightest rising stars.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley rose to national prominence as a Tea Party conservative. But as Trump has sought to cast Haley as a “liberal”, Haley has found herself defending her track record of championing rightwing causes, including her support for voter ID laws, tough immigration measures and anti-abortion restrictions.

But in the Trump era, loyalty to the former president often matters more than conservative policy positions and on the former, Haley’s record is more complicated.

Haley insists she wants nothing from Trump, whose attacks on her have become uglier and more personal the longer she stays in the race. Though she was generally reluctant to criticize Trump for much of the early stages of the campaign, she has sharpened her rhetoric since it became a two-person race. Their intensifying rivalry has all-but quelled speculation that she was gunning for vice-president or a role in his cabinet.

“I have no fear of Trump’s retribution. I’m not looking for anything from him,” Haley said in a speech from Greenville earlier this week, in which she outlined why she wasn’t departing the race.

She hammered Trump for being “too chicken” to debate her and for spending “more time in courtrooms than on the campaign trail”. She now frequently criticizes his mental acuity, recalling an episode in which he confused her with the former Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi. At one event in South Carolina, her team handed out mental competency tests.

Haley said Trump had gotten “meaner and more offensive by the day” accusing him of “trying to bully me and anyone who supports me”. Using his derisive nickname “birdbrain” to refer to her, Trump has claimed that he only selected Haley to be his United Nations ambassador as a political favor to Henry McMaster, a political ally and her second-in-command who became governor when she left the post to serve in his administration.

He also questioned her husband’s absence on the campaign trail — “What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone!” (Maj Michael Haley is serving a one-year deployment in Africa with the South Carolina national guard.)

Trump’s web of legal cases, related to his role in the January 6 attack on Congress and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, among other charges, has so far only soldered Republicans to his cause. But it remains unclear how voters would react if he is convicted. A judge last week handed him a crushing $355m-plus-interest legal penalty that threatens his personal finances and his business empire, while his campaign relies on donations to cover his mounting legal fees.

“What if all of these legal issues take Trump out of contention?” Wilson said. “Or what if all of these legal issues make it clear to voters in later states that there needs to be an alternative?”

All of the uncertainty fueled speculation that Haley may be looking ahead, either to the party’s summer convention where she would be an obvious stand-in in the extraordinary event Trump is no longer a viable nominee, or even further down the line to 2028, when she could mount another bid for the White House.

Rival campaign signs for Haley and Donald Trump stand along an intersection in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
Rival campaign signs for Haley and Donald Trump stand along an intersection in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

“Since she became Governor Nikki Haley has always had ambitions to be president,” said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, who has observed Haley’s political rise from scrappy outsider to UN ambassador.

After spending nearly a year warning Republicans that Trump is an electoral loser for the party, Haley’s case for the nomination would be even stronger in 2024 if Biden defeats him, Vinson said. “She’s then the one who looks very smart, and can go, ‘uh-huh, I told you so,’ but in a nice, polite way with a smile on her face.”

For now, Vinson said, Haley has little to lose by staying in the race. “As long as she has the money to keep going,” she said, “this is giving her a chance to meet voters in a lot of key states.”

Though Haley is wanting in delegates – the coin of the realm in party nomination politics – she is flush with cash. Despite her long odds, well-heeled donors keep giving to her campaign and her allied Super Pac.

In January, Haley outraised Trump for the first time, taking in more than $11m compared with his $8.8m. And though Haley insists she is no leader of the anti-Trump resistance, her team has capitalized on donors eager to see her take him on.

When Trump threatened that Haley donors would be “permanently barred” from his world, her campaign slapped the phrase on T-shirts. Supporters snapped them up – she boasted earlier this month that her team had already sold 20,000 – while top donors continue to finance her long-shot bid. Her campaign also trolled Trump’s latest fundraising gambit – Trump-branded gold high topswith an image of a pair of running shoes emblazoned with the Russian flag.

Trump and his allies have dismissed Haley as a sideshow, steamrolling her campaign as he moves aggressively to assume control of the Republican National Committee, which is supposed to remain neutral in the presidential primary election.

With the RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel, widely expected to step down after the South Carolina primary, Trump announced his plans to install his daughter-in-law Lara Trump and his campaign’s senior adviser Chris LaCivita in top leadership roles.

Haley speaks during a campaign stop in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Thursday.
Haley speaks during a campaign stop in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Thursday. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

In a memo this week, LaCivita argued that the results of the first several contests “sent an unmistaken message: Nikki Haley doesn’t represent Republicans any more than Joe Biden does”. He then predicted that Trump will have accrued enough delegates to sew up the nomination by 19 March at the absolute latest, and probably even earlier.


Even with its diminishing odds, Haley’s campaign has served as a welcome reminder for some that orthodox Republicans still exist despite Trump’s best efforts to purge them.

The death this week of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison after being jailed by Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, was a stark reminder of that contrast between Haley’s faith in American alliances and Trump’s isolationism.

Trump, whose conciliatory posture toward Putin has long rattled America’s allies, waited days to address Navalny’s death, which Biden and western leaders have blamed on the Kremlin leader. When he did, he compared his legal travails to the circumstances that led to Navany’s imprisonment.

“It is a form of Navalny,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall in Greenville this week. “It is a form of communism, of fascism.”

Haley by contrast has been unequivocal. “We have to remember Russia is not our friend,” Haley said days earlier, during her own Fox News-sponsored town hall in Columbia. “Donald Trump needs to answer whether he believes Putin is responsible for Navalny.”

Haley has also been a strong supporter of Ukraine, unlike Trump, who has whipped his allies on Capitol Hill to oppose funding for the democratic nation as it seeks to repel Russian forces from its territory.

But with the Republican base squarely behind the former president, Haley is left to scrounge for votes among a disparate coalition of independents, anti-Trump Republicans and, where permitted, even Democrats like Chris Richardson.

Richardson voted against Haley when she ran for governor and when she ran for re-election. But on Saturday he will cast his ballot for the Republican he calls a “patriot” and views, alongside Biden, as a last line of defense for American democracy.

“Nikki Haley and I disagree on virtually everything. But the one thing that we agree on is really the most important thing and that’s democracy,” said Richardson, a senior adviser for PrimaryPivot, a group urging Democrats and independents in states where they can participate in the Republican primary to vote for Haley as a way to stop Trump from winning the nomination.

According to Richardson, there were 400,000 South Carolinians who voted in the state Democratic primary in 2020 who did not turn out for the party’s contest earlier this month and are therefore eligible to vote in the Republican primary. The group is also targeting voters in Colorado, Michigan and elsewhere.

“The way I see it, we have two more votes to stand for democracy. Nikki Haley is one firewall and Joe Biden will be the other,” he said. “But if the firewall of Nikki Haley falls, then obviously it’s all on Joe Biden and I would rather it not come down to that because to me that feels very much like a gamble for democracy.”

Donald Trump participates in a Fox News town hall with Laura Ingraham in Greenville, South Carolina, on Tuesday.
Donald Trump participates in a Fox News town hall with Laura Ingraham in Greenville, South Carolina, on Tuesday. Photograph: Sam Wolfe/Reuters

Yet the fact remains that Haley cannot win the Republican nomination without winning Republican voters. History – and convention – provides little hope for presidential candidates who lose their home states.

Asked in an interview what it would take for Haley to upset Trump in the South Carolina primary, her immediate predecessor, the former governor Mark Sanford, replied: “A meteor strike.”

And so Haley will plod ahead. On Sunday, a day after the South Carolina vote, she plans to hold a campaign rally in Troy, Michigan, before beginning a sprint through several of the more than a dozen Super Tuesday states that will vote on 5 March.

Hope remains among Haley’s most ardent supporters, who say they’re sticking with her until the end.

“She seems like a voice for the future,” said Trish Mooney, a 60-year-old voter from Georgetown. “And it’s about time that we had a strong woman candidate that’s really smart and willing to have the courage to put themselves out there.”

George Chidi contributed reporting from Atlanta

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