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

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — 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.

But Trump’s campaign remains confident of another victory, with his top advisers releasing a memo Monday to supporters and media predicting a “humiliation at home” for Haley.

The pressure to convert Trump voters was evident in Haley’s first South Carolina campaign swing 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.

Her supporters appreciate the carefully crafted message.

“She has been the most articulate candidate in this campaign,” Ralph Carter, a Southern Baptist pastor in Greer, said before a rally outside Greenville.

Carter backed Trump in 2016 and 2020. He said he knew “both times” that Trump did not reflect his personal values, but Carter said he wanted a Republican administration. The Jan. 6 insurrection, he said, was a breaking point. Carter declined to speculate what he would do this November if Trump is nominated again; he said Haley offers Republicans the obvious solution to avoid that choice.

For Daniel Schroder, a 38-year-old father of three, “It’s about character.” As his family stood along a barrier to meet Haley, Schroder called Trump “bad for democracy” and said Haley “wants to have actual dialogue and debate.”

Haley insists South Carolina is not a must-win but another steppingstone from her nearly 20% share in Iowa and 43% share in New Hampshire — finishes that she noted have her at 17 delegates, compared to Trump’s 32, with 1,215 required to win the nomination.

“This is a long way from over,” she said over the weekend in her first campaign swing back home since outlasting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and narrowing Trump’s lead in New Hampshire.

But her backers understand the stakes.

“As a traditional Republican, we just have to stop Trump here,” said Michael Gardner, a 54-year-old engineer from Anderson. “I’ve never even come to political events before like this but I’m in. I’m giving it right back to Trump friends and talking to everybody I can.”

Gardner said his only convert so far has been his wife, a Democrat. Said Schroder: “Most of my friends, most of my family are still with Trump.”

Beyond her range of supporters, Haley also must navigate polar factions Trump generates among potential Republican primary voters.

“I’m sure she’s a lovely person, but she seems like another puppet on a string,” said Michele Kuzma, a 60-year-old retiree who moved from New Jersey after Haley’s tenure as governor. In an interview, Kuzma repeated conspiracy theories and far-right claims that Haley’s campaign is “paid for by the Democrats.”

Victor Morgan, a 41-year-old independent, said he wants to vote for Haley but only if she goes more directly at Trump. South Carolina voters do not register by party and choose which major party primary to participate in each election cycle.

He loosely quoted Trump on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape released in the last weeks of the 2016 general election, saying, “I want her to grab him by the crotch.”

“I want her to give him back everything he’s been giving out,” Morgan said.

One attendee at a Haley event — a participant in the insurrection — explained why she thinks Haley ultimately holds back.

Pam Hemphill served a federal prison term for her part in the insurrection. She has since recanted her views and come out against Trump. She waited alongside the stage Sunday to ask Haley whether she would pardon participants in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Hemphill said Haley initially avoided her question. So, Hemphill waited and asked again. “That time she said clearly, ‘No,’ she wouldn’t pardon them,” Hemphill said.

Asked about Hemphill’s account, a Haley aide pointed to a recent interview with NBC News and the Des Moines Register in which Haley distinguished between those who did not breach the Capitol and rioters like Hemphill who did.

“The ones that went in, the ones that broke the law, those are the ones — you have to hold them accountable,” Haley said. “You have to make sure they pay the price.”

Hemphill said she understands why Haley typically takes such stands only when asked — and not in her prepared speeches or paid campaign advertisements.

“It would hurt her with Trump voters,” Hemphill said. “She needs them.”

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