What to expect as South Carolina hosts the next (and maybe last) Trump-Haley showdown

Nikki Haley needs to make something happen.

With the Nevada debacle in the rear view window — an embarrassing defeat to “none of these candidates” in a primary in which Donald Trump declined to participate, it’s officially time for his sole remaining challenger for the GOP nomination to prove that she’s still competitive in the literal sense, rather that just on cable news.

South Carolina is the arena. It’s by no means an ace in the hole, but the state where Ms Haley was governor for eight years is the place where she theoretically should be strongest. It has an open primary, meaning that independent voters can participate. And she’ll be back across the state this week, hitting campaign stops in Myrtle Beach, the Charleston suburbs, and a former steel town.

But don’t be surprised if this is the end.

A defeat in one’s home state is hard to walk away from: Marco Rubio couldn’t in 2016, when he dropped out shortly after losing the Florida primary (a humiliating debate-stage thumping from Chris Christie didn’t help matters). And 2024 Donald Trump is in a much better place electorally than 2016 Trump was at the time. The former president is staring down Ms Haley in the Palmetto State with an undefeated record and a polling lead as high as 30 points in South Carolina, according to some surveys.

Ms Haley has already begun looking ahead. She has held three rallies in Super Tuesday states so far this month; one in California, and two in Texas. After Saturday, the March 5 primaries loom just a few weeks away, when roughly a third of the delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination will be up for grabs.

It would be overly optimistic, though, to expect this to be drawn out too much further should Ms Haley be dealt a convincing defeat on Saturday. It’s getting increasingly difficult for Ms Haley to enunciate a path to victory; the unspoken reality of her campaign is that many seem to think that she is biding her time and awaiting some stunning development with her opponent’s legal issues which changes the dynamics of the race. That view of voter sentiment on the issue may be grounded in reality, at least to an extent: polling shows that as many as one in four swing-state Republicans say that they wouldn’t support Donald Trump in the general election were he to be convicted of one or more of his felony charges.

That presumed strategy may or may not be something the Haley campaign is actually considering. But with Mr Trump’s first trial date in his New York criminal fraud trial still more than a month away, it’s obvious that any such development is coming much later this year, if at all. Ms Haley needs another way to peel away Republican voters — not just independents who lean right, but Republicans — from Mr Trump’s coalition. And she needs to do it fast.

We’ll have a little bit better view of Ms Haley’s plans after Tuesday, when she delivers a “state of the race” speech in Greenville. The noon address will mark four days out from the state’s primary election. The announcement of her planned address came just a few hours after she was attacking her opponent in front of a crowd in Sumter, South Carolina, over his pressuring of congressional Republicans to kill efforts to address illegal imimgration and the border security crisis.

“Donald Trump needs to stay out of it,” she quipped.

It’s hard to say what Nikki Haley’s path is from here. But one thing is clear: the present course is not working. Right now, the Republican primary is headed towards one result, a coronation of a former president charged with 91 felony counts and facing the prospect of prison time for a violent attempt at halting America’s peaceful transfer of power. And Nikki Haley may very well need a hometown miracle to prove that her Super Tuesday dreams are anything more than her imagination.

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