Nikki Haley’s dilemma in South Carolina: winning over voters who like her, but love Trump

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event Sunday in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Matthew Kelley)

CONWAY, S.C. — For South Carolina’s conservatives, deciding whether Nikki Haley ‘s record warrants a promotion to the Oval Office seems less about her experience and abilities and more about the man standing in her way: Donald Trump.

“Ms. Haley did some fine things as governor — but Donald Trump is the man!” declared Doug Roberts, a retired electrician who came to a recent Haley rally wearing a Trump T-shirt. “Donald Trump is just not a regular man.”


Haley, Trump’s last major Republican rival, faces a make-or-break stretch ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 24 primary that could be Trump’s last obstacle to a third consecutive Republican nomination. While Haley has talked about her comfort running in her home state, interviews with almost two dozen South Carolina Republicans since the New Hampshire primary suggest Haley is struggling to win over conservatives who backed her twice for governor but haven’t soured on Trump for president.

Debra Weiss, a 66-year-old from heavily Republican Myrtle Beach, demonstrates Haley’s difficult path. Sitting among the 1,500 or so who heard Haley on Sunday at Coastal Carolina University, Weiss lauded the candidate as a “true conservative” and dismissed Trump’s quips that Haley is a Democratic stand-in. Weiss criticized Trump’s rhetoric generally but said she is not concerned Trump could become a convicted felon.

Most critically for Haley, though, Weiss remains undecided.

“I wonder if Nikki would have more sway in Washington without all his baggage. I want to see whether she is strong enough. We know Donald Trump is strong,” Weiss said. “I hope Nikki can do it, make it close … But I do still love Trump.”

The winner of South Carolina’s Republican primary has won the nomination all but one time since 1980. This year’s contest is an unusual one-on-one matchup between a former president and a generally popular home-state figure.

Both were once launched by the same conservative primary electorate. Haley, as a state legislator in 2010, trounced older, more established candidates in a Republican primary on her way to winning two gubernatorial elections. In 2016, Trump swept South Carolina’s 50 delegates after closer outcomes in Iowa and New Hampshire. It was his springboard to a dominating Super Tuesday performance that gave him an insurmountable delegate lead.

On paper, South Carolina offers the broad Republican coalition Haley has sought. It has a larger presidential primary electorate than other early nominating states; turnout was 740,000 in 2016 — almost 200,000 more than Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada combined. South Carolina has a large presence of every Republican faction: evangelicals and social conservatives; anti-tax Tea Party activists; national security hawks; business-minded traditionalists.

The pressure to convert Trump voters was evident in Haley’s first campaign swing back home since outlasting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and finishing second in New Hampshire.

At two weekend rallies, Haley attacked Trump as too old, calling him “the other 80-year-old” in the race besides 81-year-old President Joe Biden. (Trump is actually 77.) She said Trump is too embroiled in “chaos and drama.”

She insisted she doesn’t “keep up with” Trump’s legal travails but slipped in references to “four cases and … 91 charges.” She mocked him for throwing “a temper tantrum” because she has not yet dropped out and urged him again to join her on a debate stage.

She hammered him as vengeful for threatening to punish anyone who supports her: “You can’t be president of the United States and not serve everyone.”

The bulk of her 45-minute speech, though, mixed conservative domestic policy ideas with tough national security talk and highlights of her South Carolina record, especially in recruiting business.

“By the time I left, they called us the ‘beast of the Southeast,’” she said, pausing for hearty applause.

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