Nikki Haley Looks to Home Turf to Challenge Trump

A combative Nikki Haley brought her presidential campaign back to South Carolina on Wednesday after a disappointing defeat the night before in New Hampshire, and told a boisterous crowd in a cavernous ballroom in North Charleston that she would fight Donald J. Trump for the Republican nomination.

“The political elites in this state and around the country say we just need to let Donald Trump have this,” she told her supporters, who were jeering at the idea. “Listen. We’ve only had two states that have voted. We’ve got 48 more.”

Nowhere is more immediately important than South Carolina, where she served two terms as governor before being tapped to serve as Mr. Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations. But just because it’s her home state does not mean it is friendly territory. As Ms. Haley looked to reinvigorate her campaign here on the ground, Republicans, as varied as local party officials and the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, stepped up the pressure on her to drop out. As she made her case for pressing on, the former president significantly consolidated his support.

While she spoke, the Trump campaign blasted out a fresh list of endorsements in South Carolina that now includes the state’s two senators, most of its House members, its governor and lieutenant governor, and much of its State House — more than 150 names in all.

“Welcome home to Trump Country, Nikki,” Austin McCubbin, Mr. Trump’s South Carolina director, taunted.

Some of Ms. Haley’s closest allies and confidants on Wednesday continued to insist that Ms. Haley had met her own expectations: She had winnowed the field and was now in the two-person contest she wanted, with time enough until the primary on Feb. 24 to spread her message to a broader electorate and draw contrasts between herself and Mr. Trump.

“For those of us in South Carolina, we have seen people doubt her, and we have seen her overcome those doubts,” said Kim A. Wilkerson, a retired president of Bank of America in South Carolina and chairwoman of the board of trustees at Clemson University, Ms. Haley’s alma mater.

But those doubts appeared to be snowballing, and the drumbeat for her withdrawal only grew louder.

“Republican voters have sent a clear message — they want to see the G.O.P. unite around our eventual nominee, which is going to be President Donald Trump,” the Republican Party chairman of Georgia, Josh McKoon, and the state’s Republican delegates wrote in a joint statement on Wednesday. “It is difficult to see how Ambassador Haley can secure the nomination.”

Even the chief strategist for Ms. Haley’s super PAC, SFA Fund, Mark Harris, acknowledged on Wednesday she needed to expand her support state by state to remain viable, with South Carolina the next big target.

“We have to do better with Republicans; we have to do better with conservatives,” he said Wednesday. “We definitely have to grow in those key demographics to provide us a realistic path to the nomination.”

Mr. Harris said Ms. Haley and her super PAC would be in the race for the long haul. He pointed to the 17 Republican delegates she has amassed with the second-place finish in New Hampshire and third-place finish in Iowa. Until later in the process when the winner of most states will take all of that state’s delegates, Ms. Haley can continue to bolster her delegate count, giving her leverage to claim the nomination if circumstances, such as a criminal conviction on any of the 91 felony counts he faces, chase Mr. Trump from the race.

But Republicans in South Carolina and across the country worried that the strategy would only anger Mr. Trump and his supporters, effectively disqualifying her from consideration — this year or in the future.

Donors who don’t get in line could also find themselves at odds with Mr. Trump. In a post on Truth Social on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump vowed: “Anybody that makes a ‘Contribution’ to Birdbrain” — Mr. Trump’s nickname for Ms. Haley — “from this moment forth, will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”

Chad Connelly, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who has stayed neutral in the race, was open about his concern: “Nikki is well liked here, and Trump is loved,” he said. “He’s going to roll her.”

History would tell Ms. Haley that the weeks before South Carolina Republicans vote can be rough. After Senator John McCain of Arizona won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, he swept into South Carolina, predicting the state’s open primary would bring Democrats and independents streaming to his cause. Instead, a whisper campaign by supporters of George W. Bush, the Texas governor then, spoke darkly and falsely of a Black daughter fathered by Mr. McCain out of wedlock. (He and his wife had adopted a daughter from an orphanage in Bangladesh.)

Mr. McCain’s defeat in South Carolina put Mr. Bush back on track to win the nomination.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday night hinted at a brutal campaign to come.

“Just a little note to Nikki,” he said at his victory speech, as he mocked Ms. Haley’s dress. “She’s not going to win. But if she did, she would be under investigation by those people in 15 minutes, and I could tell you five reasons why already.”

Hollis Felkel, a veteran Republican political consultant in South Carolina who worked for the Bush campaign in 2000 and goes by Chip, said Trump supporters were already working to get as many state legislators and senators in the former president’s column — and letting lawmakers know there is a list of those who aren’t. The dirty tricks of the 2000 campaign were not exactly “the stuff of legends,” he said, but they were “pretty bad.”

“Now we’re dealing with a whole other level of vitriol, and politics have gotten exponentially more ugly” since 2000, he said. “She’s going to get hit from all sides with every innuendo and with every grudge that remains from when she was governor.”

Over the past few days, online influencers with close ties to the Trump campaign have begun posting misogynistic, highly sexualized videos and images of Ms. Haley on social media. One of the videos, produced by a group called the Dilley Meme Team, uses “deep fake” technology to put the sexual innuendo in her own voice. A second, released as New Hampshire voters were still at the polls on Tuesday, brings up allegations of marital affairs that she has consistently denied but have dogged her since she was governor.

“The people of South Carolina are so much better than the politics of South Carolina,” Olivia Perez-Cubas, a Haley campaign spokeswoman, said. “Nikki Haley has proven she fights and wins for the people, no matter what sort of garbage gets thrown at her from the political class.”

And Ms. Haley stepped up her own attacks on Mr. Trump’s mental faculties, his age and his courage.

“Get on a debate stage and let’s go,” she said at her rally. ”Bring it, Donald, show me what you’ve got.”

On Wednesday morning, she delivered her standard stump speech via Zoom to the Republican Party of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 8.

The Haley campaign posted two advertisements in South Carolina media markets, the first hitting Mr. Trump and President Biden as “a rematch no one wants,” the second extolling her record as governor.

Meantime, the work of raising money to keep the campaign going against a tide of endorsements for Mr. Trump continued apace. A major fund-raiser in New York City is planned for Jan. 30, whose co-hosts include the billionaire financier Kenneth G. Langone and the investors Henry Kravis and Stanley Druckenmiller. Another is on tap for Houston shortly thereafter.

Privately, however, her backers are dividing into two camps, according to donors, fund-raisers and donor advisers who primarily spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. First there are those who are dutifully fulfilling obligations to fund-raising efforts, despite believing that Mr. Trump’s nomination is all but assured and that she will likely back out within weeks.

And there are those — primarily donors whose resistance to Mr. Trump is absolute — who are still all in, believing that Ms. Haley needs the financial resources to wrest the nomination from Mr. Trump, or at least to keep her campaign alive in the event that something befalls him.

“Just keep her in this race,” said Fred Zeidman, a Texas businessman and one of Ms. Haley’s strongest backers. “She is the last one standing.”

As for her super PAC, Mr. Harris said he consulted with its biggest backers after the New Hampshire loss. “They’re jazzed up, and we fully believe we’ll have the resources we need,” he said.

Timothy C. Draper, a venture capital investor and early Haley backer who has been a major contributor to the PAC, said in an email Wednesday that “Democratic women who will likely vote for Nikki need to register Republican now to bring her enough delegates to win the primary.”

Mr. Draper’s perspective gets at a dynamic many donors pointed out on Wednesday — Ms. Haley is running in the Republican primary, but in some ways is acting as a third-party candidate, drawing support from both sides. This bodes poorly for Ms. Haley, but it also suggests weaknesses for both Mr. Trump and President Biden.

“There are all kinds of warning signs for Trump,” said Eric Levine, a New York lawyer who is co-hosting the Jan. 30 fund-raiser. “He polled very poorly, very poorly, with independents and moderate Republicans. These are the very voters he is going to need to win the swing states.”

But after New Hampshire, Ms. Haley’s underdog campaign may be on life support. Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, urged the party “to unite around our eventual nominee, which is Donald Trump,” after maintaining for months that should would remain neutral. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, endorsed him, as did Senators John Kennedy of Louisiana and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

Pete Hoekstra, the party chairman of Michigan, where the Haley campaign has set its sights after South Carolina, also backed Mr. Trump and said in a statement, “we can start to focus our efforts on BEATING Joe Biden, rather than in-party fighting.”

A Democratic state representative in South Carolina, J.A. Moore, said he wanted Ms. Haley to stay in the race and sharpen her attacks on Mr. Trump, unless she would drop out and endorse Mr. Biden.

But, he warned, “She’s going to get creamed here.”

Ken Bensinger and Jazmine Ulloa contributed reporting.

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