We have sharp elbows’: Nikki Haley braces for home-state dirty tricks in Trump fight


By the time she made her defiant concession speech in the New Hampshire Republican primary on Tuesday night, Donald Trump had already attacked Nikki Haley’s Indian ethnicity, called her a patsy for China, and amplified a “birther” lie that the former South Carolina governor is ineligible to run for president.

Now, as Trump’s sole remaining challenger has rebuffed GOP calls for her to drop out of the race before her home state’s primary next month, Haley faces what analysts say may be a tsunami of political slime.

“Nikki knows this and knows there’s nothing she can do about it,” said former Republican campaign guru Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “South Carolina has the dirtiest politics in America. She is going into a buzzsaw.”

It’s Nikki Haley’s turn in the barrel, as the former president and his supporters turn their fire on his last remaining challenger. In his New Hampshire victory speech on Tuesday night, Trump – who faces four felony indictments in federal and state courts – went after his former U.N. ambassador’s character and her appearance, and suggested without evidence that Haley was ripe for a criminal investigation. 

“I don’t get too angry,” Trump said. “I get even.”

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‘Brutal, nasty and ugly’

Haley, 52, has dropped some of her rigorous caution to go after Trump directly, seizing on a confused Trump rant to suggest that her 77-year-old former boss is suffering from critical cognitive decline.

Now they’re taking the fight to South Carolina, a state known for its dirty politics.

“It is going to get brutal, nasty and ugly,” Wilson said. “He’s already using the racist nicknames and spreading birther lies.” 

While Haley was twice elected governor in South Carolina, Republican politics have moved firmly into Trump’s orbit since her last race in 2014, analysts said. 

“The state’s Republicans have made it clear they want Trump, and they will make her life miserable,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant. 

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Reveling in a reputation for dirty tricks

The Palmetto State has a long list of campaign outrages, some attributed to the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater, who worked for President George H.W. Bush in the 1980s. Atwater died in 1991, but his so-called “dark arts” live on.

In 2000, after defeating George W. Bush in New Hampshire, Arizona Sen. John McCain was attacked in South Carolina through a telephone poll that asked Republican voters, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain…if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate Black child?” (McCain and his wife had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh.)

“Our state has been infamous for its last-minute dirty tricks, anonymous phone calls, and personal attacks,” Haley wrote in her 2012 memoir. “It’s largely the work of a few consultants and politicians… But their twisted tactics don’t reflect the views of the vast majority of the people of South Carolina, or even most who participate in the political process.”

In 2010, during her first run for governor, Haley was slimed by a political blogger and a consultant working for one of her primary opponents, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with the married politician. She was called a “raghead” because her parents are Indian immigrants who practice the Sikh religion.

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“Nearly every important South Carolina race has allegations of a love child or someone who’s in the closet,” Wilson said. “It’s a tradition that would shock the normies in other states.”

In a CNN interview on Wednesday, South Carolina’s Republican chairman seemed to revel in his state’s reputation − while making a veiled warning to the Haley camp. 

“Someone once said, ‘Politics ain’t beanbag,’ and that’s true, especially here in South Carolina,” said state GOP Chair Drew McKissick, who also serves as the Trump-backed co-chair of the Republican National Committee, said. “We have sharp elbows.”

“The McCain-Bush primary is legendary,” McKissick continued. “We could potentially see that same type of thing here, possibly,” he said of the Trump-Haley showdown. “Or, you know, somebody might make a decision about a change of course between now and then.”

More:Hanging on after New Hampshire, Nikki Haley turns to home state of South Carolina

Political ‘blood sport’

Haley’s supporters say she’s ready for whatever’s coming.

“I mean, that’s their decision as far as the blood sport nature of this,” said Mark Harris, a strategist for SFA Fund Inc., a super-PAC that’s backing Haley. “But Nikki Haley grew up in the reality of South Carolina politics, won a primary election that she was not supposed to win in her first house race, and then won a primary election she wasn’t supposed to win in her first governor’s race.”

On Wednesday, the ABC News-538 polling average showed Trump with the support of 62% of Republican voters in South Carolina, to Haley’s 25%. 

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston. “She’s got a month to work on this. I don’t know if there are enough persuadables.”

“The stakes are so high,” Knotts said. “It’s a make-or-break state.”

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“Wherever she may come from’

And the former president is keen to break Haley. 

Trump has highlighted Haley’s Indian ancestry, calling her “Nimbra” and other manglings of her full name, Nimrata Nikki Haley. (Haley has gone by Nikki her entire life.) Asked to explain, he told Fox News’ Bret Baier it was all in fun – while again questioning the American-born challenger’s citizenship.

“It’s a little bit of a takeoff on her name,” Trump said. “You know, her name, wherever she may come from.”

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Haley has focused on Trump’s age after he appeared to repeatedly confuse her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a weekend campaign rally where he touched on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. “Nikki Haley is in charge of security,” he said. “We offered her 10,000 people, soldiers, national guards, whatever they want.” 

“I mean, look, we’ve seen him get confused,” Haley told CNN. “He was confused about me having something to do with keeping security away from the Capitol. Clearly, he was talking about someone else.”

Those shots may seem timid compared with what’s to come – unless Haley takes the GOP’s hint and withdraws. 

“It’s an incredibly ugly campaign the Trump folks are going to run,” Wilson said.

So far, Haley isn’t backing down.

The former governor is “consistently familiar with how to win in the sort of bare-knuckle arena that is South Carolina politics,” Harris told reporters.

Contributing: Karissa WaddickUSA TODAY.

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