Haley’s dilemma: How to undercut Trump without alienating Republican voters

Nikki Haley, looking for a message to undercut Donald J. Trump’s appeal with Republican voters, took him to task on Sunday over an $83 million defamation judgment against a woman he was already responsible for sexually assaulting, saying she was “absolutely ” believes in the jury’s verdict for the writer, E. Jean Carroll.

Her defense of the jury’s verdict contradicted Mr. Trump’s claims that the legal actions against him were a conspiratorial attack by Democrats determined to stop his political comeback, rather than legitimate legal claims of malfeasance. But she stopped short of saying that the civil judgment and award in New York disqualified him from returning to the presidency, leaving that judgment to voters.

Four weeks before what could be a decisive Republican primary in South Carolina, Ms. Haley is trying to navigate an extremely narrow and treacherous path, finding a way to reduce Mr. Trump’s influence with the party’s electorate without decisively turning conservative voters against him who have destroyed other Trump critics.

Her attacks on him endeared her to donors in both parties, boosting her coffers and keeping her in the race. But a range of disparate messages has so far done little to attract voters.

“This is a blowout,” said Representative Ralph Norman, the only Republican member of the House from South Carolina who supports Ms. Haley. “She’s in this thing. Experts say get out. Why? We only had two primaries. Now, if she gets attacked in South Carolina, do it, but she’s a candidate. She makes that call.”

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Ms. Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, continued her recent, more aggressive criticism of the overwhelming Republican presidential nominee. She took the opportunity in the weeks after disappointing defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire to match his age with that of President Biden, telling Republican primary voters that both men face cognitive and physical deficits. She also went straight for Trump’s “nonsense,” saying a “distracted” president is exactly what foreign adversaries want to see.

Ms. Haley also sought to gently remind voters of the former president’s legal peril, without fully dismissing Mr. Trump’s repeated claims that the civil lawsuits and four separate criminal cases he faces are a political “witch hunt.”

“I absolutely trust the jury and I think they made their decision based on the evidence,” Ms. Haley said in her interview, while Mr. Trump continued to call for “total immunity” from prosecution and to maintain his innocence on his social media platforms. .

She added: “The American people will get him off the ballot. I think that’s the best way to move forward without letting him play the victim. Let him play loser.”

Mr Trump’s attacks on Ms Haley – mocking her clothes, calling her “bird brain” and saying she was “almost a radical left-wing Democrat” – appear to have boosted her fundraising, fueled her willingness to stay in the race and won her some sympathy within the party .

A super PAC backing her, the SFA Fund, announced Thursday that it had raised $50.1 million in the second half of 2023, surpassing the amount raised by the main super PAC backing Mr. Trump. That amount would keep Ms Haley in the “long haul”, said Mark Harris, the SFA’s chief strategist.

On Sunday, Ms. Haley resisted even the thought of dropping out of the race. While she said she needed to improve on her second-place finish of 43 percent in New Hampshire after South Carolina’s Feb. 24 primary, she didn’t say she needed to win her state.

“I have to show that I’m stronger in South Carolina than I am in New Hampshire,” she said. “Does it have to be a win? I don’t think it’s necessarily a win. Surely it must be close.”

Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, responded: “Once again, Nikki can’t name a state where she can win.”

Ms. Haley’s quest for a message has proven extremely difficult with a Republican primary electorate inclined to give Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt, said Dave Carney, a conservative political consultant who has followed her message cycle in New Hampshire.

Former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey sought to directly attack Mr. Trump’s integrity, questioning his commitment to the Constitution and calling him a threat to the Republic. All of this antagonized most Republican voters, and he dropped out before voting in his target state, New Hampshire.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to be Trump 2.0 — a younger, more efficient and less chaotic version of the former president — but voters in Iowa and New Hampshire told him they preferred the original version.

Ms. Haley tried a number of arguments for why she is a better candidate than Mr. Trump: She brought up his legal problems, which are many; she offered a choice – she, not Mr. Trump, would easily defeat President Biden, as the polls show; she said it was time for a new generation of leadership, the end around his age, telling Republicans encouraged by conservative commentators to believe that Mr. Biden had passed into senility that Mr. Trump was no different; and she paired both men as players on the road.

“Trump has become an insider,” she said on Sunday. “That’s what it comes down to. He is more interested in pleasing a select class than in pleasing the people.”

That “chosen class” has shown no inclination to back down from Mr. Trump, who has now been held liable for sexually assaulting Ms. Carroll, who was ordered by a New York jury to pay $83 million in actual and punitive damages for defamation, and next faces with a conviction on charges of business fraud that could cost him much of his New York real estate empire.

On Sunday, Mr. Trump took to social media to rail against New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, “who was sitting comfortably and confidently in court with her shoes off, her arms folded, a Starbucks coffee and a BIG smile on her face” anticipating the next big decision against him, which preemptively rejected as a “fraud” from a “rigged trial”.

Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who was appointed to the Senate by Ms. Haley but now supports Mr. Trump, allowed on ABC’s “This Week” that language like “bird brain” could be “far more provocative than mine,” but he disputed the attacks. Ms. Haley on Mr. Trump.

“Talking about someone’s age is inappropriate when they are competent, qualified and ready to be the next president of the United States,” he said, suggesting Ms. Haley had lost the voice of older Republicans with her attacks.

At a rally in Mauldin, S.C., on Saturday night, Ms. Haley let her shine on Mr. Scott, when she told supporters, “I’m going to let you all deal with Tim Scott,” prompting a series of boos for the junior state senator.

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