Nikki Haley spoils for a fight against Trump in her home state

MAULDIN, S.C. — Donald Trump has declared the race for the Republican nomination over. So has President Joe Biden. But with less than two weeks until South Carolina’s primary, Nikki Haley is turning up the heat as she fights for her campaign’s survival in her own backyard.

The former South Carolina governor is raising new questions about Trump’s mental fitness. She is blaming him for sparking more “chaos” in Washington. And she has condemned him for suggesting that he might not defend NATO allies if he wins another term.

She’s unloading the fresh attacks at a critical time for her sputtering bid for the Republican nomination, as Trump turns his focus to South Carolina after scoring back-to-back-to-back victories in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

It was the New Hampshire defeat that dealt her campaign its biggest setback, since the more moderate GOP electorate made that state Haley’s best chance for a clean victory. Now she faces a different sort of do-or-die moment ahead of the Feb. 24 primary on her home turf.

If Haley wants to prove the GOP isn’t Trump’s party, she needs to beat the former president somewhere. But if she can’t capture a state where she was twice elected governor, can she win anywhere?

Haley and her supporters, of course, say they have a chance to defy the pundits and the polls. She paints both Biden and Trump as out-of-touch has-beens who have both failed to win the confidence of voters.

“Why do we have to have someone in their 80s run for office?” she said at a weekend rally in Newberry. “Why can’t they let go of their power?”

But her long odds are front and center in interviews with more than a dozen Haley supporters. Many needed little prompting to invoke her dismal standing in a state where recent polls show Trump with about 60% of the vote.

Sandy Manegold of Greenville has for years championed Haley, 52, as the GOP’s best chance of moving beyond Trump. But she said Haley should also consider what has been unthinkable to many stalwart Republicans.

“It’s not about her ego. It’s about country for her,” Manegold said at a recent Haley rally. “If she doesn’t get the nomination, she ought to go independent. She would get so many crossover votes. Biden is too old. Trump is too old. Nikki has everything on her side.”

Others see it as make-or-break for a campaign that will turn to more forbidding turf after South Carolina, whose GOP base includes large numbers of rural evangelicals, mainstream suburbanites, military veterans and small-town social conservatives.

The March 5 “Super Tuesday” features 16 contests from California to Virginia where Trump has also dominated the polls. Then it’s the March 12 vote in Georgia, where many leaders and activists once skeptical of Trump are now endorsing his comeback bid.

“I think she has a better chance than the world thinks against Trump,” said Mimi Sherman, a student in Mauldin. “The people of the state have a louder voice than those politicians who have endorsed Trump.”

She was referring to the tide of local officials, including Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, who have endorsed Trump. Haley and her allies like to remind crowds many of those same figures also opposed her runs for state office.

“I’ve seen this movie before. So have you. The good ol’ boys don’t like Nikki Haley,” South Carolina state Rep. Nathan Ballentine told a crowd of hundreds at a high school gym outside Greenville. “But I know how this story ends. And everyone here is going to be on the right side of history.”

Haley, meanwhile, has spoiled for a fight against Trump on familiar ground. She’s repeatedly called Trump “unhinged” and blasted him for suggesting last week that he would encourage Russia to attack NATO allies who he believes aren’t spending enough on their military defense.

After a border security deal and push for aid to Israel collapsed in Congress, Haley vented that the Washington chaos has Trump’s “fingerprints all over it.” And she’s challenged him to a one-on-one debate, which she has called the “ultimate mental competency test.”

“Donald, if you have something to say, don’t say it behind my back. Get on a debate stage and say it,” she told supporters in Gilbert, shortly after the former president questioned the whereabouts of her husband, who is on active deployment in Africa for the South Carolina Army National Guard.

The ongoing criminal trials in Georgia and three other jurisdictions, Haley added in Mauldin, should be a wake-up call to Republicans worried about winning in November.

“Maybe it’s fair. Maybe it’s not,” Haley said of the criminal scrutiny of Trump. “But what I do know is all that time he’s spending in the courtroom defending himself, he’s not fighting for the American people.”

The South Carolina GOP primary is freighted with significance. The winner has captured the party’s nomination in every contested GOP race since 1980 except for one, when Newt Gingrich won the state in 2012. And as Trump’s last rival, Haley is likely all that’s standing between him and a third consecutive GOP nod.

“She doesn’t seem like she has much of a chance now,” said Alex Rogers, a Haley supporter from Mauldin. “But I think this primary can be a turning point.”