Trump-Haley rivalry enters bitter, personal new phase

The primary race between former President Trump and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is growing increasingly personal as Haley remains defiant in her decision to stay in the race despite trailing Trump by double digits.

The changing tenor of the race was underscored this week when she choked up talking about her husband during an emotional speech in South Carolina — remarks that came days after Trump attacked her over her husband’s absence from the campaign trail.

Haley has also stepped up her direct attacks against Trump in recent weeks, signaling a bitter new phase of the primary that comes as many in the GOP hope she will drop out so that the party can coalesce around Trump.

“I’m really just not sure what her end game is in this,” said Marc Lotter, former director of strategic communications for Trump’s 2020 presidential bid. “The sooner we get the entire movement unified, focus everyone on the true opponent, which is Joe Biden.” 

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who is supporting Trump and has been floated as one of his potential running mates, echoed that sentiment. 

“Everybody knows this thing is over. She should [drop out],” Donalds said. “I think that’s what’s best for the party overall and then we get focused on November.” 

On a press call on Friday, Haley’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney acknowledged that “the math is challenging.” But Ankney added that the contest is not only about who can win the party’s primary but who can win in the general, something Haley has noted repeatedly on the campaign trail. 

“Donald Trump will not win the general election,” Haley told CNN on Thursday. “You can have him win any primary you want — he will not win a general election. We will have a female president of the United States; it will either be me or it will be [Vice President] Harris.”

A Quinnipiac University national poll released on Wednesday showed Haley leading Biden 46 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical matchup. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. 

During the same call Haley’s campaign announced a seven-figure national cable and digital ad buy that will run until at least Super Tuesday, a move that suggests Haley is staying for the long haul. 

“She’ll stay in as long as the money keeps coming in and there are a lot of people who want to have a counter-voice to Donald Trump,” said Dave Wilson, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist. 

Haley’s allies and donors touted her speech vowing to stay in the race earlier this week.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Haley said during her speech in Greenville. “I’m not afraid to say the hard truths out loud. I feel no need to kiss the ring. I have no fear of Trump’s retribution. I’m not looking for anything from him. My own political future is of zero concern.” 

She went on to talk about her husband, Michael Haley, who is currently deployed abroad with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“As I prepare for what lies ahead, Michael is at the forefront of my mind,” Haley said, before appearing to choke up.

The moment came after Trump mocked Haley for not having her husband at her side on the campaign trail.

South Carolina-based Republican strategist Alex Stroman compared Haley’s address to former President Reagan’s 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech and Mitt Romney’s 2007 “Faith in America” address. 

“Nikki Haley presented the best case yet for why Republicans need to move on from Trumpism and elect a nominee that will win in November,” Stroman said. 

“But both of those speeches that are considered landmarks in history were also for candidates who ultimately lost their elections: but in your heart, you know Nikki’s right,” he added, referring to Reagan and Romney’s remarks. 

But Republicans are showing no signs of moving on from Trumpism in South Carolina and beyond. The Hill/Decision Desk HQ average shows Haley trailing Trump by 31 points in South Carolina and by 64 points nationally. 

Others have floated the theory that Haley is staying in the race in the case that Trump’s numerous legal issues could hinder a run in some way. The former president was already ordered to pay an eye-popping $354 million in his New York civil fraud case following a separate New York jury ordering him to pay $83 million in writer E. Jean Carroll’s defamation case against him. On top of that, the former president is also facing four criminal cases. 

But there is no sign that Trump’s legal issues are hindering him in the primary. A YouGov survey released earlier this month found that 66 percent of Republicans believe that the investigations into Trump are being conducted “unfairly.” 

Additionally, strategists point out that recent history shows that Republican voters have fallen in line behind their presumptive nominees prior to the nominating conventions. 

“Historically, it’s been a long time since we’ve gone all the way to the Republican nominating convention and had a battle out on the floor,” Wilson said, referencing the 1976 nominating convention between Reagan and former President Gerald Ford. 

Meanwhile, Trump has been trying to shift to general election mode. The former president floated a number of potential running mates during a Fox News townhall on Tuesday and is slated to deliver the keynote address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday before the South Carolina primary. 

The former president spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters convention on Thursday, using the address to take some jabs at Haley. 

“Let her run,” Trump said, noting that it “looks like she’ll lose by 25 to 30 points” in South Carolina. 

“We’ve got to stick together as a party. We have enough of a fight,” the former president said. 

According to The Hill/Decision Desk HQ average, Trump leads Biden by two points in a hypothetical matchup. 

As for Haley, strategists say that the math for her will really start to matter after Super Tuesday. 

“The biggest question right now is how long can the electoral map hold out,” Wilson said. “By the time you get through Super Tuesday, you’ll have 24 states who have spoken and 215 delegates will have been distributed.”

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