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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Haley’s dilemma: How to diminish Trump without alienating Republican voters

Former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, speaks to supporters in Des Moines following her third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, 2024. On “Meet the Press,” Nikki Haley said she trusted a jury’s judgment in Donald Trump’s sex-assault defamation case, while she tries to peel away the former president’s supporters. (Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times)

By Jonathan Weisman and Jazmine Ulloa

Nikki Haley, searching for a message to dent Donald Trump’s appeal with Republican voters, took him to task Sunday over the $83 million verdict for defaming a woman he was already liable for sexually assaulting, saying she “absolutely” trusted the jury’s judgment for writer E. Jean Carroll.

Her defense of the jury’s verdict went against Trump’s claims that the legal cases against him amounted to a conspiratorial attack by Democrats determined to stop his political comeback, not legitimate legal claims of malfeasance. But she stopped short of saying the New York civil verdict and award disqualified him from returning to the presidency, leaving that judgment to voters.

Four weeks before what could be the decisive Republican primary in South Carolina, Haley is trying to navigate an extremely narrow and treacherous path, finding a way to diminish Trump’s hold on the party’s electorate without decisively turning conservative voters against her the way they have destroyed other Trump critics.

In her most recent campaign swings through South Carolina, she has continued to avoid dwelling on his legal troubles or criminal charges. But she has ratcheted up her criticism of his mental and physical agility, challenged him to debate her and argued he is spending more time in the courtroom than on the campaign trail.

“Donald Trump was totally unhinged — unhinged,” Haley said to cheers on Saturday in Mauldin, South Carolina, near Greenville, as she described moving up in the polls ahead of the New Hampshire primary. “He was a bit sensitive, and I think his feelings were hurt, but he threw a temper tantrum out onstage.”

Her jabs at him have endeared her to donors in both parties, swelling her coffers and keeping her in the race. But a string of different messages has so far done little to actually attract voters.

“This fires her up,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, the one South Carolina Republican member of the House backing Haley. “She’s in this thing. The pundits say get out. Why? We’ve only had two primaries. Now, if she gets blitzed in South Carolina, do it, but she’s the candidate. She makes that call.”

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, continued her recent, more aggressive criticism of the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. She has taken the opportunity in the weeks since her disappointing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire to pair his age with President Joe Biden’s, telling Republican primary voters that both men face cognitive and physical deficits. She also went directly after Trump’s “rants,” saying that a “distracted” president is exactly what foreign adversaries want to see.

Haley has furthermore sought to gently remind voters of the former president’s legal peril, without fully rejecting Trump’s repeated assertions that the civil suits and four separate criminal cases he faces are political “witch hunts.”

“I absolutely trust the jury and I think that they made their decision based on the evidence,” Haley said in her interview, as Trump continued to call for “complete immunity” from prosecutions and maintaining his innocence on his social media platform.

She added, “The American people will take him off the ballot. I think that’s the best way to go forward, is not let him play the victim. Let him play the loser.”

Trump’s attacks on Haley — mocking her clothing, calling her “bird brain” and saying she is “almost a radical left Democrat” — appear to have bolstered her fundraising, primed her willingness to stay in the race and won her some sympathy within the party.

The super political action committee backing her, SFA Fund, announced Thursday that it had raised $50.1 million in the second half of 2023, eclipsing the amount raised by the main super PAC backing Trump. That sum would keep Haley in for “the long haul,” said Mark Harris, SFA’s chief strategist.

Haley on Sunday resisted even contemplating departing the race. While she said she needed to improve on her second-place 43% finish in New Hampshire after the South Carolina primary on Feb. 24, she did not say she needed to win her home state.

“I need to show that I’m stronger in South Carolina than New Hampshire,” she said. “Does that have to be a win? I don’t think that necessarily has to be a win. It certainly has to be close.”

Karoline Leavitt, a Trump campaign spokesperson, responded, “Once again, Nikki cannot name a state that she can win.”

Haley’s search for a message is proving to be extremely difficult with a Republican primary electorate inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, said Dave Carney, a conservative political consultant who watched her cycle through messages in New Hampshire.

Haley has been trying out a series of arguments for why she is a better candidate than Trump: She has raised his legal troubles, which are many; she has offered electability — she, not Trump, would beat Biden handily, as polls suggest; she has said it is time for a new generation of leadership, an end-run around his age, telling Republicans primed by conservative commentators to believe Biden has crossed into senility that Trump is no different; and she has paired both men as beltway players.

“Trump has become an insider,” she said Sunday. “That’s what it comes down to. He is more interested in satisfying the elected class than he is in satisfying the people.”

Later that afternoon, Haley stuck to that theme at her rally in Conway, South Carolina. She accused Trump of trying to pressure the Republican National Committee into announcing him as the presumptive nominee, and cast Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham and his other top endorsers in her state as part of an old and broken Washington.

“You can have them, I don’t want them,” she quipped.

That “elected class” has shown no inclination to back away from Trump, who has now been held liable for sexually assaulting Carroll, been ordered by a New York jury to pay her $83 million in actual and punitive damages for defaming her, and next up, faces judgment on charges of business fraud that could cost him much of his New York real estate empire.

On Sunday, Trump was on social media railing against New York Attorney General Letitia James, “who sat comfortably and confidently in Court with her shoes off, arms folded, a Starbucks Coffee, and a BIG smile on her face” anticipating the next big decision against him, which he preemptively dismissed as a “hoax” from a “rigged trial.”

Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who was appointed to the Senate by Haley but is now backing Trump, allowed on ABC’s “This Week” that language such as “bird brain” may be “far more provocative than mine” but he challenged Haley’s attacks on Trump.

“Talking about someone’s age is inappropriate when especially they are competent, qualified and ready to go to be the next president of the United States,” he said, suggesting Haley had lost the vote of older Republicans with her attacks.

On Saturday night in Mauldin, South Carolina, Haley let her pique with Scott shine through, when she told her supporters, “I’ll let you all deal with Tim Scott,” prompting a round of boos for the state’s junior senator.

At her rally in Conway, a small crowd of Trump supporters waved Trump signs outside, and a few hecklers interrupted her speech at times. Her supporters drowned them out with cowbells and cheers of “Nikki, Nikki.” She turned down the temperature first by taking the high road, telling her attendees not to be offended because her husband and every other U.S. military member sacrificed for the right of Americans to protest.

Then, she also threw in some snark.

“That’s what Trump does,” she said with a smile. “He does disruption — that’s the only way he thinks he can win is by planting people like this. I think we’re getting under his skin.”

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