Sunday, May 26, 2024

Far behind Trump, Haley confronts prospect of first South Carolina loss

Far behind Trump, Haley confronts prospect of first South Carolina loss

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — Nikki Haley kicked off a rally by touting more than a dozen accomplishments from her tenure as governor. She touched on the hard times she led the state through, from hurricanes to floods to the racist massacre at the historically Black Mother Emanuel AME Church.

“We rallied, we hunkered down, and we got to work,” she said Thursday, reflecting on her economic strategy as governor, after an opening speaker introduced her as “South Carolina’s favorite daughter.”

Yet the Republican presidential candidate’s long record in the state where she rose to prominence has mostly met a collective shrug ahead of Saturday’s primary as she squares off against Donald Trump, who has drawn widespread support. Now, Haley is hurtling toward something she has never experienced in the Palmetto State: defeat.

“They know her there better than anywhere else, and she can’t get out of the 30s,” said Terry Sullivan, a longtime Republican strategist who worked for one of Haley’s rivals in the 2010 gubernatorial race, referring to her percentage of support in recent polls. “It’s as good as it’s going to get for her. It’s not like they don’t know you well enough. It’s pretty devastating if she loses.”

On the eve of South Carolina’s Feb. 24 Republican primary, even voters in Nikki Haley’s hometown of Bamberg expect a Trump victory. (Video: Adriana Usero, Michael Cadenhead, Anna Liss-Roy/The Washington Post)

Haley, who served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador, built her political career in South Carolina, defying the odds to win both her 2004 race for the State House and the 2010 gubernatorial election. (Those victories came after Haley defeated her primary opponents in runoffs). In the lead-up to her White House bid, she proudly boasted that she had “never lost.” But polls show her well behind Trump, whom many in the party see as the presumptive nominee.

It’s Haley’s experience prevailing in previous races in which she was counted out, some associates and observers say, that has prompted her to stay in the race, even though she has yet to win a single state. (The Trump campaign estimates that the former president will lock down the requisite number of delegates to win the nomination by next month.)

But the circumstances Haley is confronting Saturday contrast sharply with her previous races. While she entered some of them as an underdog, she had turned around the contests by the eve of the vote.

Haley’s refusal to abandon her bid for the White House despite a near-impossible path to victory has raised questions about what her end goal is — and what her future might look like in the GOP with Trump as the nominee.

“I don’t care about a political future. If I did I would have been out by now,” Haley said here Thursday, speaking outside between palm trees as some supporters looked on from a boat bearing a Nikki Haley sign from the river behind the event. She strained to put a positive touch on her prior defeats, casting her third-place finish in Iowa as “within one percent of second place,” and framing her New Hampshire loss as a win with 43 percent of the vote when she was expected to lose by 30 points.

In what she billed as a “state of the race” speech on Tuesday, Haley sought to address questions that have loomed over her effort. She outlined her plan to remain in the race for the nomination and declared that she has “no fear of Trump’s retribution.”

“Dropping out would be the easy route. I’ve never taken the easy route. I’ve been the underdog in every race I’ve ever run,” she said in that speech. “I’ve always been David taking on Goliath. And like David, I’m not just fighting someone bigger than me. I’m fighting for something bigger than myself.”

Haley has developed a reputation for insularity as a candidate — someone who is known for following her own instincts and taking advice from a small circle of confidants. That has left many Republicans wondering about her ultimate aim.

One South Carolina GOP consultant, who spoke on the condition anonymity to talk more candidly about the race, suggested several possible scenarios for Haley’s thinking: One is that Trump eventually loses in the general election and Haley can be the “I told you so” candidate in 2028. Another “could be as simple as she loves a fight; she likes to be an underdog.” And the third, the consultant said, is the possibility that Trump is convicted (he faces 91 criminal charges) and she is the last person standing — a theory that is popular among voters here in the state who are backing her effort.

Yet some suggested that there could be longer-term consequences for sticking around so long.

“There is risk involved in this endeavor,” said Rob Godfrey, a South Carolina-based consultant and former deputy chief of staff to Haley who is neutral in the race. “The longer you stay in the race and come up short, the likelier you are to alienate people you might want to court down the road, the more potential damage you do to the party’s eventual nominee, and the more resources you divert from the party’s effort to win back the Senate and expand the House majority.”

Godfrey, however, added that Haley “rarely has the same goals traditional candidates have, and she hasn’t ever cared whether the party apparatus likes her — she cares whether they respect her.”

Losing a home state can be a death knell to a presidential campaign. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the race in 2016 after losing Florida. And Haley has made South Carolina central to her White House bid. Earlier this year, she told a New Hampshire audience: “You know Iowa starts it. You know that you correct it. … And then my sweet state of South Carolina brings it home.”

Trump, meanwhile, boasts strong support in South Carolina, where he has the backing of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, as well as most of the state’s members of Congress, including GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. Scott, whom Haley appointed to the Senate in 2012, is seen as a potential Trump running mate, and he has campaigned for Trump in the state. The South Carolina Republican told reporters Thursday that Haley should step aside “for the good of the country” after Saturday’s primary.

“The one person that stands in the way of having a conversation between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is Nikki Haley,” he said. “Getting out of the way is incredibly important, not for the party but for America’s future.”

A poll this month from Suffolk University-USA Today found Trump with 63 percent support from likely GOP primary voters, while Haley had 35 percent support. The poll found 47 percent had a favorable view of Haley and 36 percent had an unfavorable view of her, compared to 64 percent with a favorable view of Trump and 25 percent with an unfavorable view of him.

Joel Sawyer, a South Carolina-based political consultant, called the state a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation” for Haley.

“On the one hand if you lose your home state, people say, ‘Wow, you can’t even win your home state.’ If you win your home state, people say, ‘Of course you did, that’s your home state,’” Sawyer said.

But for her supporters here in South Carolina, many of whom remember Haley’s time as governor and a state representative, Trump’s dominance in the state is confounding.

Graham Osteen, a Georgetown resident, looked back proudly at Haley’s stint as governor, recalling how she brought big industry to the state and removed the Confederate flag from the State House. Trump, in contrast, is “just one of the worst people anybody’s ever seen in this country,” he said, attributing his dominant lead in the state to “cult-like thinking.”

As Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” played at the Thursday event, Osteen said he hopes Haley is able to close the gap with Trump and stays in the race, predicting that anything could happen to Trump, or President Biden.

“I think the longer she stays in, the more chance she has to — for something to happen, to do something for her to emerge,” he said. “At least I’m hopeful like that.”

Haley has vowed to stay in through Super Tuesday in early March, and she is scheduled to head to Michigan after the South Carolina primary. She plans to travel to D.C. and seven states in the next week and has leadership teams in Washington, Utah, Massachusetts, Idaho, Alaska, Minnesota, California, Georgia, Texas, Vermont and Michigan.

Haley and her campaign have highlighted polling that shows her beating Biden, and in recent weeks she has sharpened her attacks on Trump. Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas attacked Trump over his legal fees and the extent to which he has relied on allied organizations to foot the bills. “No matter what you think about him, this is a losing strategy for November,” she said.

Trump has sought to diminish their competition. “Nikki is not a race,” he said in a Thursday speech. Earlier this week, his campaign sent out a memo titled: “The End is Near for Nikki Haley.”

Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist, said that “Haley’s about to hit a fork in the road.”

“The math is against her,” he added. “And there’s really no clear path to victory, so she’s going to have to figure out when does this continuance in the race start to hurt her brand and help Biden.”

LeVine reported from Washington. Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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