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Nikki Haley’s home-state strategy faces a hitch: South Carolina is Trump country

Nikki Haley’s home-state strategy faces a hitch: South Carolina is Trump country

ROEBUCK, S.C. — Nikki Haley sees her home state as a launchpad. It could become her campaign’s crash site.

The former South Carolina governor has staked her hopes of wresting the 2024 Republican presidential nomination from former President Donald Trump on the idea that she can survive January contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that will thin the GOP field and then defeat him in a one-on-one battle here in her backyard.

So far, she hasn’t made the sale.

That’s at least in part because Haley has yet to give voters a reason to abandon Trump — the dominant political figure in the state for almost a decade — a recurring theme that emerged in interviews with almost two dozen Republican voters, current and former elected officials, county party chairs and Republican strategists. The same can be said for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the rest of a field that Trump leads by more than 30 percentage points in recent polls of the state’sFeb. 24 primary.

“The other candidates have been reluctant until more recently to make significant contrast arguments about why this guy should not be the nominee,” said Republican strategist Rob Godfrey, a former Haley deputy chief of staff who is neutral in the primary and hasn’t foreclosed the possibility that someone other than Trump could win here.

Image: Donald Trump Attends The Palmetto Bowl In South Carolina As He Campaigns For President
Former President Donald Trump waves to the crowd Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. Sean Rayford / Getty Images

“That’s why you haven’t seen the activists pull off of Trump and support some of these other folks — because the message has not been hard enough,” he added. “It hasn’t taken hold, and you’re running out of runway.”

Haley backers say that there’s plenty oftime for her to remind persuadable voters here why they elected her twice — from South Carolina’s strong economy during her tenure to efforts includingfighting Common Core education standards — and that there are aspects of Trump’s presidency that they didn’t love.

“First, it’s got to get down to a binary choice between the former president and Nikki Haley,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, who has endorsed Haley. “If there’s a clear choice between the two, between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, that’s a fight worth having and a fight that’s possible to win.”

He said he expects more state legislators to endorse Haley this week and fan out across the state to spread her message.

“If it does get down to a two-person race, you’ve got a whole month in between the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary to make the case here,” Davis said.

Yet a survey conducted for pro-Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. by longtime Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio’s firm, and shared first with NBC News, suggests the former president’s lead over Haley would grow in a head-to-head matchup in South Carolina.

In a test of the full current field, the poll shows Trump with 53% in the state, Haley with 24% and DeSantis with 11% — figures roughly in line with independent surveys. But when Trump and Haley were matched up one on one, Trump led 64% to 31%.

That helps explain why other supporters see a need for Haley, who’s been locked in a fight with DeSantis for weeks, to take a tougher line with Trump.

“I would tell her it’s time, because it’s going to be her and him and it’s time to start going in that direction,” South Carolina state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Haley supporter, said of whether she should train her focus on Trump. “There’s no need to just kill more time.”

To the extent Haley has an opening, it’s because most voters here hold her in high esteem. But not all of them.

“She promised things that she didn’t deliver,” said Judith Sullivan, a Trump supporter who owns a restaurant and bar in Roebuck. “She was too eager to step up, and did not deliver a lot of things that she told her voters that she would do before she moved on to her next position.”

Some also said that voters’ approval of Haley in other rolesdoesn’t necessarily transfer to them seeing her as presidential material.

“People respect her service here,” said Barbara Nielsen, a former state superintendent of education who supported Sen. Tim Scott and now leans toward DeSantis. “I’m just not sure that they see her in the office that she’s running for.”

Haley is looking to reconnect with voters who haven’t seen her on a ballot since 2014. She hosted a well-attended town hall meeting Monday in Beaufort, her first event in the state in almost a month. It came on the heels of Trump’s highly-publicized visit to Saturday’s marquee football game between the University of South Carolina and Clemson, a free media bonanza for the former president.

Even though Trump received a mix of cheers and jeers, the dueling appearances served as a reminder of his ability to block out the sun — or the state’s favorite daughter — at a moment’s notice.

For Haley to win, she’ll have to sway a large portion of voters who find her appealing even though they currently back Trump.

Trevor Vance, a veteran from Spartanburg, said he prefers Trump even though he appreciates the work Haley did as governor and as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I like President Trump, only because he broke the mold. He changed Washington for a little bit, he stirred everything up,” he said. “Sometimes when you get stagnant, you need to break things up and change it up and be a different style. Tell the people something different.”

But, Vance added, “Trump should use Nikki Haley as a vice president candidate.”

That baseline of affinity for Haley is reason for her campaign to see a path to victory in the state. So is her upward trajectory in surveys of GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, even though she hasn’t yet seen the same kind of momentum in polling here.

Gibby Furniss, a meat cutter at a Food Lion in Columbia, said he is concerned about Trump’s “divisiveness” and is leaning toward Haley in part because he believes she can “bring us together.”

“I was excited to see her enter,” he said, citing Haley’s experience as a diplomat and her “gumption” as attractive attributes. “She’ll probably come on and do a little better, I believe, in the coming months once the field narrows down.”

On Tuesday, Haley scored the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity — opening up the network of donors tied to billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, a development her supporters hope will advance her case that she can unite non-Trump Republican voters.

“You’re already starting to see the field consolidate,” a Haley campaign official said before the AFP endorsement. “Nikki has gained the most from that consolidation. We fully expect it to continue to consolidate, especially after Iowa.”

Trump’s camp says Haley is proving herself a creature of the establishment and suffering for it.

“Nikki Haley has been anointed the flavor of the month by the China-first RINO establishment that has joined forces with the liberal left to do whatever is necessary to stop Donald Trump,” saidChris LaCivita, a co-manager of Trump’s campaign, using an acronym for Republicans In Name Only.

“A distant third in Iowa, a distant second in New Hampshire,” he added. “And where Republicans know her record best, in her home state of South Carolina? Nikki Haley is losing, on average, to Donald Trump by 30 points. While there is plenty more to be said, we will leave it at that for now.”

Complicating matters for anti-Trump Republicans across the country, and here in South Carolina, there’s no indication that any of the remaining candidates — a group that also includes businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others — will soon leave the race.

Spartanburg County GOP Chairman Curtis Smith said there would be a heck of a fight for the state but for one factor.

“Nikki Haley is loved by an awful lot of people that are here,” he said. “If (Trump) wasn’t in the race, we’d have one barnburner between DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Ramaswamy.”

Several voters who prefer Haley said they nonetheless expect Trump to take the state.

“Realistically, it’s going to be Trump, as much as I hate to say that,” said Carson Neil, a 19-year-old government and economics major who said she is likely to vote for Haley in the primary. “There’s a slim chance that he doesn’t win. A miracle could happen because Nikki Haley used to be our governor.”

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