Georgetown, South Carolina — The two-person contest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination comes to South Carolina on Saturday, where former governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is looking for her home state to deliver her first win of the election season over former President Donald Trump.
Polling shows Trump holds a strong lead over Haley, after securing wins in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in January. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll of South Carolina voters conducted last week found that 63% of the state’s voters prefer the former president.
Earlier this week, Haley vowed to continue on to Super Tuesday, the primary day in early March when a diverse set of 15 states will vote for their choice of a Republican candidate to go up against President Joe Biden in the November general election.
But at a campaign event Friday, Donald Trump Jr. told reporters Haley’s vow was a calculated decision.
“It’s just political theater, but it’s the political theater designed to hurt Donald Trump and the Republican chances in November. She’s saying that she’s going to remain until Super Tuesday. I’m sure she will. She won’t win any states on Super Tuesday either,” he said.
Trump holds 63 delegates going into Saturday’s vote, while Haley holds 17. A candidate needs 1215 delegates to secure the nomination, with most of the delegates still to be awarded.
Haley told voters at a Georgetown, South Carolina, rally on Thursday that she is the better choice in the general election, arguing American voters are concerned about the age and abilities of both Trump and Biden.
“Are we really saying the best we can do is two guys in their 80s?” Haley said. “Because we need someone who can serve eight years uninterrupted, day and night, and focus on what’s going to get solutions for the American people.”
Haley is Trump’s only remaining rival for the nomination. Some voters who chose Trump in the last election said they are turning to Haley now as an alternative to the former president’s rhetoric.
“Nikki Haley is a lot less volatile than he is — he has a very volatile personality,” Kat Loftus, a voter from Georgetown, told VOA. “I think she would do a much better job of listening to people that are different from her and negotiating and getting things accomplished to unite our country.”
Loftus said border security and immigration are her top concerns this election year and Haley’s experience as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would be useful as she negotiated with Mexico’s president on border security.
In her well-attended speech, Haley also argued Trump has harmed the global reputation of the United States with his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Donald Trump is siding with a thug,” Haley said. “Half a million people have been wounded or killed because Putin invaded Ukraine. Donald Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents.”
Tee Miller, a South Carolina voter, agreed, saying the former president had his chance during his term.
“Everyone thinks he’s going to bring this change, but he had the opportunity before and didn’t really make the change. And he’s also brought on new baggage,” Miller said.
Flo Phillips did change her mind. She voted for Trump in the last election but said she is now voting for Haley.
“I can be proud of her when she’s talking. She’s not saying horrible things about everybody. She seems to be a real smart person,” Phillips told VOA.
Trump campaign focused on Biden
But Haley was barely mentioned Friday by Trump Jr. as he rallied voters in Charleston, South Carolina.
“We can get our country back to where it needs to be,” Trump Jr. told a small group of voters, alleging Biden is controlled by radical Leftists. “No one actually thinks that Joe Biden is coming up with policy, right?”
Rosie, a South Carolina voter who declined to provide her last name, agreed, saying that Biden has torn down democratic values during his term in office. She said she did not consider voting for Haley.
“She was on record saying that she would never run if Trump was running. So that’s just indicative of her flip flopping on what she says she’s going to do and then what she does. She’s proven that her track record is, ‘I’ll say what I need to get elected and then do the opposite,'” she told VOA.
“Nikki is a good lady,” South Carolina voter Todd, who declined to provide his last name, said he appreciated her leadership in 2015 when a racist gunmen killed eight people at the Charleston AME church. Todd, who described himself as a big fan of Trump Jr.’s political podcasts, said the timing of Haley candidacy wasn’t right. “With all that’s going on in our country, it’s just not the right time.”
Carolyn Corcoran, a voter and single mother worried about the rising cost of living, said Haley is too politically entrenched in Washington. She said she likes Trump because he puts people ahead of politics.
“The way they’re attacking Trump by using the law as a political weapon — it’s really heartbreaking for someone who protected people for years and enforced the laws the way they should be enforced,” said Corcoran, who retired from law enforcement after 30 years.
“To see our whole country, the attorneys general using the law to try to get at Trump, when he’s never done anything that anyone else hasn’t done. They just want to weaponize the law against him.”