NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nikki Haley returned to the campaign trail in her home state and swiftly unfurled an arsenal of attacks against Donald Trump. She accused him of throwing a “temper tantrum” in his victory speech, attacked his acuity and reprised her challenge to debate him. “Bring it, Donald, show me what you got,” Haley said. The crowd cheered.
But beyond the walls of the convention center ballroom where she spoke, a very different attitude was evident.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said she didn’t see “the math and the path going forward” for Haley after former president Trump scored a second straight early-state win this week in New Hampshire. Trump scooped up new support from congressional Republicans, including some former skeptics who saw the GOP race as all but over. And the Trump campaign released a list of his 158 endorsements in South Carolina — which Haley calls her “sweet home state,” despite polls showing her trailing by a wide margin against Trump.
The events and developments on Wednesday brought into focus Haley’s new reality as she continues on in a Republican presidential contest most of her party believes isn’t much of one at all. Outside of Haley’s most loyal supporters, Republicans are coalescing around Trump and have rejected attacks against him. Some have come to view her candidacy as merely a speed bump on Trump’s path to the nomination.
After losing by about 11 points in New Hampshire — which had been seen as her most promising early state — Haley returned home to South Carolina, where she previously defied expectations to win a seat in the legislature and then the governorship. Haley released two ads in South Carolina on Thursday and announced a schedule of weekend rallies.
But it was a difficult homecoming, since Trump has the backing of South Carolina’s top leaders — including the governor, both U.S. senators (including one Haley appointed) and members of Congress (including one Haley helped save from a Trump-backed primary challenger).
“The entire party needs to coalesce around Donald Trump TODAY,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) wrote Thursday on X, formerly Twitter.
But at her first event in the state since last year, Haley projected confidence, and attendees were upbeat about her showing in New Hampshire. Supporters wore handmade pro-Haley T-shirts and brought a banner reading “SC Proud of Nikki Haley.” They rose in a standing ovation when she was introduced and did not sit back down the entire speech.
As Trump and his allies aim to officially wrap up the nomination quickly, the former president said in a social media post that anyone who donates to Haley will be “barred from the MAGA camp,” which Haley turned into a fundraising pitch of her own.
Haley sought to portray her New Hampshire finish as a win despite Trump’s decisive victory, announcing that the campaign had raised $1 million since her speech in Concord on Tuesday night.
And she directed sharp attacks against her rival.
“He was insulting. He was doing what he does. But I know that’s what he does when he’s insecure. I know that’s what he does when he is threatened. And he should feel threatened without a doubt,” she said of his victory speech in New Hampshire, which he started with a series of attacks against Haley.
Haley reiterated that she will stay in the race, arguing that “a presidential candidate has to get 1,215 delegates. Donald Trump has 32 and I have 17. So we are not going to sit there and just give up.”
She continued to question his mental competence, pointing to a recent speech in which he appeared to confuse her and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying, “I think he was a bit confused.”
Alejandro Otman, an independent who attended Haley’s event, said he believes the members of Congress are only backing Trump because they want to keep their jobs.
Otman, who did not vote for Trump or President Biden in the last election, said he is optimistic about Haley’s chances because “Trump can go up, or he can go down very quickly,” alluding to both potential legal or health challenges.
Suzanne Brekke, a Haley supporter from Moncks Corner, said she’s disappointed to see the state’s leadership lining up to endorse Trump. Brekke, 69, said she is a registered Republican who did not vote in 2016 and voted for Biden in 2020 because of her dislike of Trump. She wishes Haley would go even harder after the former president, framing her campaign as the last, best shot at stopping him.
“Trump is like a cancer. I’m really and truly afraid that nobody can get him, but she is our best hope,” Brekke said.