To her supporters here, it smacked of betrayal.
“It bothers me that she did a lot of things for people, and they’ve all turned their backs on her,” Pat Pope, 67, said outside of the convention center ballroom where Haley held her rally. Pope said she switched her allegiance to Haley after Scott exited the race.
Haley returned to South Carolina after a third-place finish in Iowa and, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out, a second-place showing in New Hampshire. But with Trump winning both states convincingly, pressure is mounting on Haley even here to abandon her campaign.
On Wednesday, Rep. Ralph Norman, who served with Haley in the South Carolina statehouse and is her sole congressional endorsement, told POLITICO he has gotten calls from Republicans who wanted Haley to bow out.
“These pundits are saying get out. Why?” Norman said in an interview. “Nikki’s got the courage to continue on. She would have liked to have done better in both New Hampshire and Iowa. But it is what it is, and she’s willing to put the work in. And I’m with her.”
Haley supporters see, in her decision to continue in the primary, a certain homegrown logic. Haley has been the long shot in South Carolina Republican primaries before, persevered and won. In her first run in 2004, Haley challenged the state’s longest serving legislator in the Republican primary, ousting him in a runoff election.
Six years later, she ran for governor as an underdog tea party candidate, again forcing a primary runoff after a late surge and winning.
This time, however, the challenge appears far more difficult. It’s not just the Republican establishment in Columbia out to stop her. Following her defeat in New Hampshire, and just as Haley got the head-to-head contest with Trump that she had long hoped for, some of the most powerful voices of the GOP called for the primary to come to an end, saying conservatives should simply get behind Trump. That includes the Republican National Committee’s chair, Ronna McDaniel, who said on Tuesday she saw no path forward for Haley. On Wednesday, the Trump campaign said it picked up 50 new endorsements from current and former Republican officials in South Carolina over the past two weeks.
In a longer-than-usual, 40-minute campaign speech here Wednesday night, Haley appealed to her history with the state’s electorate, reminding voters “you have been with me before.”
“Join with me again,” she said. “One last time.”
Then she asked her supporters to take yard signs, and to tell 10 people each to vote for her in the state’s primary on Feb. 24.
In her first stop back in South Carolina, Haley did nothing to suggest a change in posture toward Trump, despite his popularity here. She had become increasingly critical of the former president while campaigning in New Hampshire, and in her speech on Wednesday, she recycled many of the comments she has made previously about his age, mental acuity and electability in November. She leaned into public dissatisfaction with the idea of a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden.
And Haley pushed back on the notion that she should quit the race, reminding the crowd that only two states have voted.
“We’ve got 48 more,” Haley said to cheers, explaining there were delegates up for grabs in all of those states.
“Donald Trump has 32, and I have 17,” she said. “So we are not going to sit there and just give up.”
She told the crowd she had raised $1 million since giving her election night speech in New Hampshire 24 hours before, when she finished 11 points behind Trump.
Mark Harris, a longtime adviser to Haley who now serves as lead strategist of the pro-Haley super PAC, SFA Fund, Inc., on Wednesday described her as the “insurgent candidate” in the race.
She and her team, Harris said, are “the ones storming the castle, so to speak,” he said.
His comments reflect an effort by Haley and her allies to portray the candidate as an establishment-fighting underdog, despite her status as a former governor and U.N. ambassador who, until quite recently, was relishing media attention as a favorite of the GOP’s elite donor class.
On Wednesday, Harris predicted Haley will likely be outspent by Trump and his allies in South Carolina. But he pledged the super PAC — which has spent more on advertising than any other group in the presidential race — will fund mail, digital and grassroots campaigns to mobilize Haley voters in the state.
“Nikki Haley grew up in the reality of South Carolina politics,” Harris said. “She’s consistently familiar with how to win in the sort of bare-knuckle arena that is South Carolina politics.”
Haley and her allies are no longer suggesting she’ll win her home state, instead casting a vision for her candidacy continuing on for months and racking up as many delegates as possible.
Harris on Wednesday said states with primaries after South Carolina that will be favorable for Haley include Michigan, California, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine.
Rob Godfrey, a Republican strategist in South Carolina and Haley’s former deputy chief of staff, said that given Haley’s history of come-from-behind victories in South Carolina, she is in the “best possible position she could have asked for.”
“She always relishes that role,” Godfrey said. “She relishes the fight.”
But the stakes are much higher in a presidential race than her past elections here, said Godfrey, who is staying neutral in the primary.
Norman saw it similarly. Asked if her longshot bid now felt like the elections where he stood by years ago, Norman shook his head. It wasn’t quite like before.
“Different office,” he said. “Different day.”