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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Nikki Haley hasn't yet won a GOP contest. But she vows to keep fighting Trump

    Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Greer, S.C. (AP Photo/David Yeazell)

    GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — There are no wins on the horizon for Nikki Haley.

    Those close to the former United Nations ambassador, the last major Republican candidate standing in Donald Trump's path to the GOP's 2024 presidential nomination, are privately bracing for a blowout loss in her home state's primary election in South Carolina on Saturday. And they cannot name a state where she is likely to beat Trump in the coming weeks.

    But ahead of a major address on Tuesday, Haley told The Associated Press that she will not leave the Republican primary election regardless of Saturday's result. And backed by the strongest fundraising numbers of her political career, she vowed to stay in the fight against Trump at least until after Super Tuesday's slate of more than a dozen contests on March 5.

    “Ten days after South Carolina, another 20 states vote. I mean, this isn’t Russia. We don’t want someone to go in and just get 99% of the vote,” Haley said. “What is the rush? Why is everybody so panicked about me having to get out of this race?”

    "I refuse to quit,” Haley later told a small collection of supporters gathered in South Carolina in a speech outlining her rationale for staying in. “South Carolina will vote on Saturday. But on Sunday, I’ll still be running for president. I’m not going anywhere.”

    In fact, some Republicans are encouraging Haley to stay in the campaign even if she continues to lose — potentially all the way to the Republican National Convention in July. Her continued presence could come in handy in the event that the 77-year-old former president, perhaps the most volatile major party front-runner in U.S. history, becomes a convicted felon or stumbles into another major scandal.

    As Trump's “Make America Great Again” movement presses for her exit, a defiant Haley highlighted Trump's legal exposure and criticized MAGA activists who say she's hurting Trump's chances against President Joe Biden in the general election by refusing to drop out.

    “That’s about the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. If I get out of the race today, it will be the longest general election in history,” Haley told The AP.

    She also pushed back when asked if there is any primary state where she can defeat Trump.

    “Instead of asking me what states I'm gonna win, why don't we ask how he's gonna win a general election after spending a full year in a courtroom?”

    Haley's hurdles

    History would suggest Haley has no chance of stopping Trump. Never before has a Republican lost even the first two primary contests, as Haley has by an average of 21 points, and gone on the win the party's presidential nomination. Polls suggest she is a major underdog in her home state on Saturday and in the 16 Super Tuesday contests to follow. And since he announced his first presidential bid in 2015, every effort by a Republican to blunt Trump's rise has failed.

    Yet she is leaning into the fight.

    Lest anyone question her commitment, Haley's campaign is spending more than $500,000 on a new television advertising campaign set to begin running Wednesday in Michigan ahead of the state's Feb. 27 primary, according to spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas. At the same time, the AP has obtained Haley's post-South Carolina travel schedule that features 11 separate stops in seven days across Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, Virginia, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Massachusetts.

    The schedule also includes at least 10 high-dollar private fundraising events.

    Indeed, Haley's expansive base of big- and small-dollar donors is donating at an extraordinary pace despite her underwhelming performance at the polls. That's a reflection of persistent Republican fears about Trump's ability to win over independents and moderate voters in the general election and serious concerns about his turbulent leadership should he return to the White House.

    “I’m going to support her up to the convention,” said Republican donor Eric Levine, who co-hosted a New York fundraiser for Haley earlier this month. “We’re not prepared to fold our tents and pray at the altar of Donald Trump.”

    “There’s value in her sticking in and gathering delegates, because if and when he stumbles,” Levine continued, “who knows what happens.”

    Levine is far from alone.

    Haley's campaign raised $5 million in a fundraising swing after her second-place finish in New Hampshire that included stops in Texas, Florida, New York, and California, Perez-Cubas said. Her campaign raised $16.5 million in January alone — her best fundraising month ever — which includes $2 million in small-dollar donations online in the 48 hours after Trump threatened to “permanently bar” Haley supporters from his MAGA movement.

    Haley raised another $1 million last week in the 24 hours after Trump attacked her husband, a military serviceman currently serving overseas.

    The lone member of Congress who has endorsed Haley, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., insisted that she would stay in the race even if she is blown out in South Carolina, a state where she lives and served two terms as governor.

    “Obviously, you want to win them all, but for those who say it’s going to embarrass her, or end her political career, I disagree. She’s willing to take that risk,” Norman said in an interview. “I think it’s a courageous thing she’s doing.”

    Moving forward, Haley’s team is especially focused on several Super Tuesday states with open or semi-open Republican primaries that allows a broader collection of voters to participate — especially independents and moderates — instead of just hardcore conservatives.

    Trump not happy

    Trump, in recent days, has shown flashes of fury in response to Haley’s refusal to cede the nomination.

    He called her “stupid” and “birdbrain” in a social media post over the weekend and his campaign released a memo ahead of her speech on Tuesday predicting that she would be forced out of the race after losing her home state on Saturday.

    “The true ‘State’ of Nikki Haley’s campaign?” Trump’s campaign chiefs wrote. “Broken down, out of ideas, out of gas, and completely outperformed by every measure, by Donald Trump.”

    Eager to pivot toward a general election matchup against Biden, the Republican former president is taking aggressive steps to assume control of the Republican National Committee, the GOP's nationwide political machine, which is supposed to stay neutral in presidential primary elections. Last week, Trump announced plans to install his campaign's senior adviser Chris LaCivita, as RNC's chief operating officer and daughter-in-law Lara Trump as the committee's co-chair.

    And there is every expectation that current Chair Ronna McDaniel will step down after Trump wins South Carolina's primary and party officials will ultimately acquiesce to Trump's wishes. Privately, Haley's team concedes there is nothing it can do to stop the Trump takeover.

    In her speech, Haley said she has “no fear of Trump’s retribution.”

    “I’m not looking for anything from him,” she said. "My own political future is of zero concern.”

    Haley, in the interview, also warned her party against letting Trump raid the RNC's coffers to pay for his legal fees while taking a short-term view of Trump's political prospects.

    Trump's standing will fundamentally change if he is a convicted felon before Election Day, Haley said, acknowledging that such an outcome is a very real possibility as Trump navigates 91 felony charges across four separate criminal cases.

    “People are not looking six months down the road when these court cases have taken place,” Haley said. “He’s going to be in a courtroom all of March, April, May and June. How in the world do you win a general election when these cases keep going and the judgments keep coming?”

    As for her path forward, Haley said she's focused only on her plans through Super Tuesday. As for staying in the race through the July convention, she said she hasn't thought that far ahead.

    Some voters wish she would.

    Gil White, a 75-year-old Republican veteran from James Island, South Carolina, said he was a Trump loyalist until the former president criticized Haley’s husband, a military serviceman, last week.

    “For him to disparage a military man in deployment is just too much,” White said while attending a Haley rally in Kiawah Island over the weekend.

    He acknowledged concerns about Haley's chances against Trump, but said he wants her to stay in the race even if she continues to lose.

    “I want the choice," he said.

    ___

    Peoples reported from Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed.

    Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Waterford Township, Mich., Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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