With two weeks to go before the South Carolina Republican primary, Nikki Haley is trying to challenge Donald Trump on her home turf while the former president tries to quash his last major rival’s narrow path to the nomination.
Trump, turning his campaign focus to the southern state days after an easy victory in Nevada, is expected to rev up his supporters at a Saturday afternoon rally in Conway, near Myrtle Beach.
Trump, who has long been the frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, won three contests in a row and is looking to use South Carolina’s Feb. 24 primary to shutter Haley’s chances and turn his focus fully on an expected rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden in the general election.
Haley skipped the Nevada caucuses, condemning the contest as rigged for Trump, and has instead focused on South Carolina, kicking off a two-week bus tour across the state where she served as governor from 2011 to 2017.
Speaking to about a couple hundred people gathered outside a historic opera house in Newberry Saturday morning, Haley painted Trump as someone an erratic and self-absorbed figure not focused on the American people.
She pointed to the way he flexed his influence over the Republican Party this past week, successfully pressuring GOP lawmakers in Washington to reject a bipartisan border security deal and publicly pressed Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to consider leaving her job.
“What is happening?” Haley said. “On that day of all those losses, he had his fingerprints all over it,” she added.
Haley reprised her questions of Trump’s mental fitness, an attack she has sharpened since a Jan. 19 speech in which he repeatedly confused her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Haley, 52, has called throughout her campaign for mental competency tests for politicians, a way to contrast with 77-year-old Trump and 81-year-old Biden.
“Why do we have to have someone in their 80s run for office?” she asked. “Why can’t they let go of their power?”
A person in the crowd shouted out: “Because they’re grumpy old men!”
“They are grumpy old men,” Haley said.
Organizers passed out hot pink feather boas and beats in a nod to the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration and to emphasize women’s support for Haley, who was the state’s first female governor.
Harlie O’Connell, a longtime South Carolina resident who backs Haley, said she’s excited to vote in the presidential primary for a woman from her home state.
While she plans to support in November whoever wins the GOP nomination, she said she would prefer someone younger.
“It’s just time for some fresh blood,” O’Connell said.
Her husband Mike O’Connell credited Haley for courting major manufacturers like Volvo and Samsung to the state while she was governor, bringing jobs and investment. He also drew a contrast between Haley’s and Trump’s foreign policy and said he wants the U.S. to continue assisting Ukraine in its war with Russia, as Haley has pledged.
“We need to encourage friendships and not discourage them,” he said of international relations.
Bob Pollard, a retired firefighter, said Haley showed “level-headedness” that Trump lacks in the way she responded to the 2015 shooting at a Charleston church in which a white supremacist killed nine Black members of the congregation.
Pollard cannot support Trump because “he’s a maniac” and said his campaign, in which he speaks frequently of “retribution” and his personal grievances, has “turned into a personal vendetta.”
In Conway, people began lining up to see Trump hours before the doors opened to the arena where he was set to take the stage later.
Organizers expecting a capacity crowd set up screens outside where an overflow crowd would be able to watch Trump’s appearance.
The city sits along the Grand Strand, a broad expanse of South Carolina’s northern coast that is home to Myrtle Beach and Horry County, one of the most reliably conservative spots in the state and a central area of Trump’s base of support in the state in his past campaigns.
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