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Home-state humiliation: Nikki Haley risks being trounced by Trump on her own turf

Nikki Haley had a plan: Keep it close in the early primaries, then beat Donald Trump in her home state of South Carolina. Instead, Trump is poised for a lopsided win Saturday that would not only cement his presumed GOP presidential nomination, but also underscore the extent to which he has taken over the Republican Party.

Saturday's South Carolina primary could cement reality that the modern GOP belongs to Trump

Long shot of Haley on stage, with her name on a billboard and a U.S. flag behind her

Omens can be desolate or foreboding. But this likely omen came slathered in bright, buoyant strokes of acrylic paint.

An amateur painter was working on a portrait of a U.S. presidential candidate outside a studio in Georgetown, S.C., right as Nikki Haley rolled into town for a rally on the same street.

South Carolina, Haley's home turf, where she was a relatively popular governor, is the site of a crucial Republican primary Saturday. Only it wasn't the home-grown candidate being commemorated on canvas. It was Donald Trump, who is widely expected to beat Haley badly in her own backyard Saturday.

"My love for Trump is beyond measure," said Wendy McLaughlin, who was painting outside the shop near Haley's event Thursday.

She was a lifelong Democrat who attended a Trump rally about five years ago and underwent an instant conversion: "I walked in a Democrat, walked out a 'Trumppublican.' "

She gives the former president credit for a booming economy that helped her get her start as a realtor; she sold a bunch of homes in 2019. "I was rocking it," McLaughlin said. But that's dried up now, with high interest rates.

Woman paints a portrait of Trump

Prognosis bleak for Haley

So what about Haley? After all, she was governor of South Carolina during a historic economic boom, as employment and multinational business investment skyrocketed.

That's a non-starter for McLaughlin. She's still sore at Haley for evacuating her region before a deadly 2016 hurricane, which had softened into a Category 1 by the time it reached the area.

She owned a restaurant at the time and figures that pre-emptive evacuation for what she called "a little nothing hurricane," cost her $5,000.

This is the kind of campaign it's been for Haley. She may be the last primary candidate standing against Trump, but her prognosis is bleak.

LISTEN | Nikki Haley finished behind 'none of the above' in Nevada:

The Current10:21Nevada GOP voters pick ‘none of these candidates’

Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot in Nevada’s Republican primary on Tuesday, but his main rival Nikki Haley lost to an option that let voters pick “none of these candidates.” The Globe and Mail’s Nathan Vanderklippe brings us the latest on the presidential race and Trump’s ongoing legal troubles.

She finished third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and lost a non-race in Nevada where Trump wasn't even on the ballot and she came behind none of the above. Now, polls have her about two dozen points back in her own state.

It's a telling sign that Haley recently felt the need to announce she's staying in the race: "I'm not going anywhere," she said in a speech Monday.

Though she's not expected to win in South Carolina, her campaign insists it will keep fighting, touting a seven-figure advertising spend for the Super Tuesday states voting on March 5.

People on street hold signs with messages that say "Nikki Lost Nevada to 'Other' "

Her legacy in South Carolina

Longtime associate David Wilkins gives Haley credit for what she's achieved.

"One year ago, she was at two per cent in the polls. One of 14 people running," said Wilkins, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who also led South Carolina's state legislature and ran the transition when Haley became governor in 2010.

"Now she's one of two."

He also noted her history of pulling off stunning primary upsets.

Early in her career, Haley knocked off the longest-serving state lawmaker to gain a seat in the legislature. She then surged past a crowded field to become governor, backed by Tea Party activists and Sarah Palin. In 2014, she was re-elected by a larger margin.

Her supporters reminisced about Haley's achievements as governor during Thursday's rally in Georgetown.

The mayor credited her swift response to a devastating downtown fire in 2013.

Area prosecutor Scarlett Wilson praised Haley for holding the state together amid explosive incidents, including the trial of a police officer caught on video shooting an unarmed Black man in the back in 2015, and the massacre of African-American churchgoers that same year by a white supremacist.

A hand holds a black sign with white lettering that reads "#Take Down the Flag" outside an ornate legislative building.

Wilson was the prosecutor in both those cases and says there easily could've been violence in the streets under lesser leadership.

"Our country was a tinderbox," said Wilson, who has endorsed Haley. "Charleston didn't burn. Unlike other places in the country."

In her memoirs, Haley wrote that she was traumatized by the Charleston massacre and said she cried frequently after meetings with victims' families.

"She was in those people's homes. She was holding hands. She was wiping away tears," Wilson said. "And she was mourning herself."

The state economy also flourished as Haley reformed the state pension system, and cut business and property taxes — while raising the sales tax.

There's just one problem: Cutting business taxes and entitlement reform are no guaranteed path to the heart of modern-day Republican voters.

A woman with dark hair wearing a tan coat leans over to speak with a supporter.

Haley 'well-suited for 2004' not 2024

Haley feels like a throwback to a party that's being phased out, says James Wallner, a political science professor at South Carolina's Clemson University, who has deep connections in the GOP

"She's a candidate that is well-suited for 2004 in the Republican Party. And maybe not so much for 2024," he said. "She was governor at a different time. And I think that the Republican Party and the South Carolina electorate has changed in many ways."

Wallner's perspective on the party is informed by his past work as a congressional staffer to several high-profile Republican lawmakers in Washington. And he disputes the idea that the differences in the party are merely due to the cult-of-personality surrounding Trump.

He says there are substantive differences. Like the fact that Republican voters increasingly disagree with Haley on foreign policy and with the idea that the U.S. has a moral or strategic responsibility to arm Ukraine.

McLaughlin, the painter, loves Trump's America First stances. She was at the recent rally where Trump seemed to welcome a Russian invasion of NATO allies that under-fund their militaries.

WATCH | Trump's comments about NATO:

Trump suggests he’d encourage Russia to attack countries not paying enough to NATO

12 days ago

Duration 2:45

Former U.S. president Donald Trump suggested that he would encourage Russia to attack any country that doesn’t pay enough into NATO. Critics say that’s not how NATO works and that the comments undermine its pledge of mutual defence.

She argues his comments were blown out of proportion.

"He was just saying, 'Pay up — or let 'em get you, stupid. We're not going to defend everybody in the world, when you're not paying your fair share."

To Haley and some of her supporters, those comments were a potentially fatal undermining of NATO. She has noted, for instance, that while he mocks allies, Trump has been abnormally silent about Russia being accused of killing jailed opposition leader Alexi Navalny.

"Donald Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents," Haley told supporters in Georgetown Thursday. "With a tyrant who arrests Americans and holds them hostage."

Instead, she said, Trump should be siding with the U.S.'s friends, who rushed to its defence after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Crowd of several dozen people, and some TV cameras, assembled as Don Trump Jr speaks on stage

At a Charleston rally on Friday, Donald Trump Jr. barely mentioned Haley in his speech to several dozen people, declaring the Republican race essentially over.

He likened Haley's bid to a zombie campaign propped up by non-Republicans, who he says are voting and donating in the party primaries simply to drag them out.

The better Trump does on Saturday, his son said, the faster Haley will drop out, and the faster Trump can focus on his real fight: "Going after Joe Biden."

Some Haley supporters can no longer stomach Trump

At recent campaign events, Haley has joked about speculation around why she's stayed in the race: For a shot at the vice-presidency? Or to build her long-term political brand? In response, she claimed not to care about her political future.

"If I did, I would have been out by now," she said, citing the surging national debt, which she says will weaken the country militarily and economically. "I'm doing this for my kids."

Her supporters want her to keep fighting. At least through Super Tuesday on March 5, at which point half the states will have voted.

A blond woman with glasses holds a Nikki Haley sign while standing at a campaign event.

Some are resigned to voting for Trump if he's the nominee, while others say they won't vote for him again.

Leslie Cochrane cited Haley's character — versus Trump's — as the reason she's supporting the former South Carolina governor.

"She's interested in construction — not destruction. She's positive," she said outside the Haley rally. "She's not interested in only throwing bombs."

Cochrane, who grew up in the Deep South and now lives in South Carolina, but has family roots in Canada, winced when asked what she'll do this fall if it's Biden versus Trump, whom she voted for in 2016, but not 2020.

Then she deadpanned: "Move to Canada."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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