CONWAY, S.C. — (AP) — With two weeks to go before the South Carolina Republican primary, Nikki Haley is challenging Donald Trump on her home turf while the former president is turning to his familiar playbook of personal attacks as he tries to quash his last major rival for the nomination.
Trump, turning his campaign focus to the southern state days after an easy victory in Nevada, revved up a huge crowd of supporters at a Saturday rally in Conway, near Myrtle Beach. He promoted his time in office, repeated his false claims that the 2020 election he lost was rigged, maligned a news media he sees as biased against him and lashed out at Haley, her husband and President Joe Biden.
In his rally speech, Trump insulted Haley by using his derisive nickname for her, "Birdbrain," and lavished praise on South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who endorsed him early. Trump claimed that he selected Haley to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations in 2017 and represent America on the world stage only because he was motivated to make McMaster — her second-in-command — the governor of South Carolina.
“She did a job. She was fine. She was OK. But I didn't put her there because I wanted her there at the United Nations,” he said. “I wanted to take your lieutenant governor, who is right here, and make him governor.”
“I wanted him because I felt he deserved it," Trump added
Trump, who has long been the front-runner in the GOP presidential race, won three states in a row and is looking to use South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary to close out Haley's chances and turn his focus fully on an expected rematch with Biden in the general election.
Haley skipped the Nevada caucuses, condemning the contest as rigged for Trump, and has instead focused on South Carolina, kicking off a two-week bus tour across the state where she served as governor from 2011 to 2017.
Speaking to about a couple hundred people gathered outside a historic opera house in Newberry, Haley on Saturday portrayed Trump as an erratic and self-absorbed figure not focused on the American people.
She pointed to the way he flexed his influence over the Republican Party this past week, successfully pressuring GOP lawmakers in Washington to reject a bipartisan border security deal and publicly pressed Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to consider leaving her job.
“What is happening?” Haley said. “On that day of all those losses, he had his fingerprints all over it,” she added.
Haley reprised her questions of Trump's mental fitness, an attack she has sharpened since a Jan. 19 speech in which he repeatedly confused her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Haley, 52, has called throughout her campaign for mental competency tests for politicians, a way to contrast with 77-year-old Trump and 81-year-old Biden.
“Why do we have to have someone in their 80s run for office?” she asked. “Why can’t they let go of their power?”
A person in the crowd shouted out: “Because they’re grumpy old men!”
“They are grumpy old men,” Haley said.
Haley continued the argument when speaking to reporters afterward, citing a report released Thursday by the special counsel investigating Biden's possession of classified documents. The report described Biden's memory as “poor.”
“American can do better than two 80-year-olds for president,” Haley said.
Bob Pollard, a retired firefighter, said he cannot support Trump because “he’s a maniac,” adding that Trump’s campaign, in which he speaks frequently of “retribution” and his personal grievances, has “turned into a personal vendetta.”
Harlie O’Connell, a longtime South Carolina resident who backs Haley, said she plans to support the eventual GOP nominee but prefers it is someone younger.
“It’s just time for some fresh blood,” O’Connell said.
Her husband, Mike O’Connell, drew a contrast between the candidates' approach to foreign policy and said he wants the U.S. to continue assisting Ukraine in its war with Russia, as Haley has pledged.
“We need to encourage friendships and not discourage them,” he said of international relations.
Trump, in his remarks and a social media post on Saturday, criticized foreign aid generally and a plan in Congress to provide nearly $100 billion in aid for Ukraine and Israel. He also repeated his praise for foreign strongmen, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “very smart, very sharp," describing Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as ”one of the toughest guys,” and saying Chinese President Xi Jinping is smart because he ”controls 1.4 billion people with an iron fist.”
At another point in his speech, he escalated his years-old attacks on the NATO military alliance. Trump suggested that if one of the member countries was attacked by Russia but had not met its military spending goals under the alliance, not only would America not protect that military ally but Trump would encourage Russia "to do whatever the hell they want."
In one very personal attack, Trump repeatedly questioned why Haley’s husband Michael Haley, who is deployed on a yearlong stint in Africa with the South Carolina Army National Guard, hasn’t been on the campaign trail. Trump, whose own wife, Melania Trump, has not joined him as he campaigns, asked: “What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone. He knew. He knew.”
Haley responded sharply in a post on X, saying: “Michael is deployed serving our country, something you know nothing about. Someone who continually disrespects the sacrifices of military families has no business being commander in chief.” In an interview with CBS' “Face the Nation” a day later, Haley said, “We can’t have someone who sits there and mocks our men and women who are trying to protect America. It’s a pattern. It’s a pattern of chaos. It’s a pattern of irresponsibility.”
Another prominent Republican, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, told ABC's “This Week” that “it’s unfortunate for anybody to be criticizing our men and women serving overseas.”
Trump also ramped up his attacks on the media, maligning the press at least a half-dozen times, with the crowd registering their agreement with boos.
He wrapped up with an at times apocalyptic vision of the country, listing ills from dirty, crowded airports to looming nuclear war and, if he loses the election, predicting the stock market would crash like it did in 1929, touching off the Great Depression. He referred to his supporters who were prosecuted for their roles in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as “hostages” who have been “unfairly imprisoned for long periods of time."
He made his extended lament while speaking over an instrumental song that QAnon adherents have claimed as their anthem.
In Conway, people began lining up to see Trump hours before the doors opened to the arena where he was set to take the stage later.
Organizers set up outside screens for an overflow crowd to watch.
The city sits along the Grand Strand, a broad expanse of South Carolina’s northern coast that is home to Myrtle Beach and Horry County, one of the most reliably conservative spots in the state and a central area of Trump’s base of support in the state in his past campaigns.
Tim Carter, from nearby Murrells Inlet, said he had backed Trump since 2016 and would do so again this year.
“We’re here to stand for Trump, get our economy better, shut our border down, more jobs for our people,” said Carter, a pastor and military veteran who runs an addiction recovery ministry.
Cheryl Savage from Conway, who was waiting on the bleachers to hear from Trump, said the former president is "here to help us.” Savage said she backed Haley during her first run for governor in 2010 but now feels she is hurting herself by staying in the race.
“He deserves a second term,” Savage said, of Trump. “He did a fantastic job for four years.”
Price reported from New York and Pollard reported from Newberry, South Carolina.
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