UN Ambassador Nikki Haley
Republican presidential hopeful and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks after results came in for the New Hampshire primaries Image Credit: AFP

Nikki Haley didn’t narrow the margin with Donald Trump in her home state’s primary last week. But in her losing bid to win South Carolina, she finally drew blood against the presumptive Republican nominee.

Haley spent the last month doing what her supporters have been waiting for — sharpening her attacks on the former president. She’s questioned his mental acuity, condemned his comments on Nato and his position on Ukraine, and criticised his interference in the failed congressional border deal. Many of her attacks were made on conservative media which more often serves as Trump’s personal PR machine.

In a shrewd bit of media management, Haley gave a “State of the Race” speech that attracted 30 minutes of live coverage from Fox News and she used the moment to say that regardless of primary results and pressure from Trump: “I refuse to kiss the ring … I’m not going anywhere.”

She shouldn’t. She should stay in the race as long as she can to accumulate delegates, then use them as leverage to become leader of the anti-Trump faction and exert some influence over the party. She should give homeless Republicans some hope.

By inviting fence-sitters and independents to vote for her in a way that’s never been done before in the first-in-the-South primary, Haley exposed an uncomfortable truth for her party: There are still a lot of Republican-leaning Americans who are voting against Trump and he likely needs them to win in November.

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Many South Carolina Haley voters told me that they formerly supported Trump, but don’t want to see him return to office. They echoed Haley’s description that he brings “chaos”. They longed for change.

For a race that seemed predetermined, enthusiasm for the primary was immense. More than 205,000 people voted early, about 90,000 more than all the votes cast in the Feb. 3 Democratic primary. According to exit poll results, 21% of the nearly 700,000 votes cast in the Republican primary were from independents and 4% were from Democrats.

Staying in the race?

Trump’s win was called by news organisations just two minutes after polls closed and his sweeping victory reinforced his chokehold on the party. His populist appeal, focused more on identity politics than policy, brought more White working-class voters to the GOP.

He consolidates his strength by threatening to withhold his endorsement from GOP candidates in primaries. It’s a powerful tool and we’ll be seeing more to come. South Carolina Senators Tim Scott and Lindsay Graham — who had condemned Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection — stood by him during his victory speech Saturday, demonstrating their word means less than the opportunity to be vice president or a cabinet official.

Haley will focus on Super Tuesday, March 5. If she doesn’t do well then, it’s hard to see how she’ll make the delegate math work. Eleven of the 15 Super Tuesday states have open primaries and represent a combined 874 Republican delegates, nearly three-fourths of the total needed to win the nomination. By March 12, in Georgia, Trump may have reached the 1,215 delegates needed for the nomination.

Haley has the resources to stay in the race through then. But campaigns don’t end because candidates lose elections. They end because they run out of money and Haley’s donors may soon decide it’s time to turn off the spigot.

Haley and affiliated political committees spent $11.3 million blanketing her home state on broadcast television alone — about 13 times what the Trump campaign spent. They have vowed to spend several million more in the run-up to Super Tuesday.

All that money won’t bring her victory, but it will bring her recognition and attention. If Trump loses in November, as Haley predicts, she will have secured her place as the “I told you so” candidate. And if Trump wins, let’s hope she will have helped build the faction within the party that wants to hold him accountable. — Bloomberg

Mary Ellen Klas is a politics and policy columnist