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Seeing Haley’s attacks on Trump, some claim her as a member of the resistance

Speaking to influential Republican donors at a private gathering in Palm Beach, Fla., on the last Tuesday of January, Nikki Haley’s campaign manager joked that she had hoped to bring the party’s bigwigs all “Barred Permanently” T-shirts, but they were back-ordered — a cheeky allusion to Donald Trump’s threat that anyone who donates to Haley will be “permanently barred” from his world.

At a rally on Feb. 10 in Newberry, S.C., Haley teasingly touted the shirts, boasting that her team had already sold 20,000, which had raised more than $500,000 for her operation.

The playful ribbing underscores a newfound reality for Haley in her long-shot bid for the GOP nomination: As the former South Carolina governor has sharpened her rhetoric against Trump, she has emerged — partly purposefully, partly unintentionally — as a key voice in the anti-Trump resistance, articulating a forceful case against four more years of the former president.

In Newberry, Haley staff passed out mock mental competence tests and stickers featuring a drawing of a chicken with Trump’s hair and tie reading, “Trump is too chicken to debate.” Haley accused Trump of throwing a “temper tantrum onstage” after her second-place finish in New Hampshire and said he talks more about being a victim than about the American people.

She questioned his mental fitness, citing Trump confusing her and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and calling both him and President Biden “grumpy old men.” She blamed him for their party’s losses in the past three election cycles and said his “fingerprints” were all over recent GOP chaos, like congressional failures and turmoil at the Republican National Committee.

“We need to wake up to the fact that — you look at what happened a few days ago — Donald Trump lost immunity, Republicans lost the vote on the border, Republicans lost a vote on Israel, Republicans fired their party chair. And basically you look at that: Donald Trump had his fingers on all of that,” Haley told reporters after the rally. “Everything that he has done, from the rants, to talking about revenge after New Hampshire, to everything in between — it is total chaos.”

The role is a new one for Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations for two years.

Since entering the Republican presidential primary a year ago, Haley was generally hesitant to criticize Trump too harshly, though she did sometimes characterize him as too chaotic.

But as the race winnowed down to a two-person contest between Trump and Haley following the Iowa caucuses, Haley began ramping up her attacks on Trump — simultaneously depicting him as an “insecure” toddler throwing “temper tantrums” and a septuagenarian at risk of a “senior moment.”

The heightened anti-Trump tone has prompted comparisons between Haley and Liz Cheney — the daughter of former Republican vice president Dick Cheney, who served as vice chair of the House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and lost her Wyoming congressional seat after repeatedly and vocally criticizing Trump for his role in the insurrection.

The Haley campaign and allies say her more combative approach is the natural result of a winnowing field, in which the time has come to offer a stark contrast with Trump, who leads her in every poll of Republican primary voters.

And they also argue what many Democrats privately concede: that Haley could prove a far more formidable general election candidate against Biden, and that Democrats prefer to run against Trump. Haley is performing slightly better against Biden than Trump is in a Washington Post average of recent polls.

“We are reminding South Carolinians about Nikki’s conservative record and making clear that Nikki is the last one standing between the Trump-Biden rematch that no one wants,” said Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney in a video call with reporters this month.

And at a recent event hosted by the Charleston, S.C.-based Post and Courier newspaper, Haley was asked if, as Trump’s final primary challenger, she accepts that she is the de facto leader of the “Never Trump” movement — a title she quickly rejected.

“I don’t. And the reason is, I fight for those who have supported Trump as much as I fight for those who haven’t supported Trump,” Haley replied. “We should be going after everyone and talking to everyone because our goal is to serve everyone.”

Yet her more forceful tone against Trump has elevated Haley as a voice of the Trump opposition, leaving some Democrats and Never Trumpers cheering her on, while others gripe that her rebukes of the former president are insufficiently harsh. It also risks alienating some of the very Republican voters she needs to win over, and their reluctance to embrace a full-throated anti-Trump message, even from a fellow Republican, underscores the near impossibility of taking on Trump in a GOP primary, where he commands overwhelming loyalty from the party base.

“The way I think of Nikki Haley is she’s someone whose apartment started flooding, like, 10 years ago and she went and worked for the flood and now she’s putting a towel down and thinking that’s going to be effective,” said Pat Dennis, president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC supporting Biden. “It took until literally the most possible pressure for her to turn against Trump. She mostly ran this campaign on ‘Trump is a great guy’ until very recently.”

Others are more bullish on Haley now that she has begun challenging Trump more starkly.

William Kristol, founder of the conservative Weekly Standard and a strong Trump critic, said he is encouraging his fellow Never Trumpers to rally around Haley, arguing that, as a Republican, she is “articulating something against Trump that they wouldn’t have listened to from Joe Biden or even Liz Cheney.”

“She’s increasingly willing to draw some lines as to why Trump is unacceptable,” Kristol said. “I think she’s a bit of an off-ramp for Trump for some people.”

Mitch Landrieu, a former senior adviser in the Biden White House who now co-chairs Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign, said Haley “is representing in her candidacy another view of what the Republican Party ought to be.”

The Biden campaign has begun pushing out clips of Haley criticizing Trump on Truth Social, Trump’s social media platform. A person close to the campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak more candidly, said they are eager to highlight when Republicans and independents criticize Trump and the threat he poses to American democracy.

Some anti-Trump groups have also channeled their efforts toward helping Haley, even if their main motivation remains detracting from Trump. PrimaryPivot, a group urging independent and Democratic voters to vote for Haley in upcoming Republican contests, sent more than 200,000 text messages the day before the Feb. 3 Democratic primary in South Carolina, urging recipients to “make your vote count” and suggesting they could have greater impact voting in the Republican primary on Feb. 24. Last week, the group sent up a follow-up text targeting highly educated left-leaning voters who did not vote in the Democratic primary, reminding them they can “still vote for a candidate that respects democracy in the more competitive primary.”

“We actually don’t like Nikki Haley very much. We don’t like her position on abortion. We don’t like her position on climate change. We don’t like her position that she’s going to pardon Donald Trump without seeing the evidence,” said Robert Schwartz, a co-founder of PrimaryPivot. “But that’s not the point. The point is that she would not end the peaceful transfer of power as Donald Trump has already done — well, attempted to do.”

During the first Republican primary debate in August, Haley was among the candidates who raised their hands in affirmation when asked if they would still support Trump if he was the Republican nominee, and also a convicted criminal. (Trump faces 91 charges across four criminal cases.)

“It’s not an anti-Trump movement,” Haley told reporters in the backroom of a barbecue restaurant in Columbia this month. “I agree with a lot of his policies. … The thing is, people think you have to either be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I’m pro-America.”

She added: “This is not about whether we like Donald Trump. I have no personal problems with Donald Trump. I voted for him twice. I was proud to serve America in his administration. This is about the fact that we are tired of losing.”

Instead, Haley aides and allies say she is drawing a contrast with Trump and offering a clear conservative alternative, on her own terms.

“She’s not against Trump per se — they’re opponents — but she represents a wing of the party and she’s speaking for us and it’s important for the rest of the party to be reminded we exist,” said Eric Levine, a New York-based Republican lawyer and fundraiser supporting Haley. “We need to give them an alternative. We need to give my wife a reason to vote Republican. She will not vote for Donald Trump; she will vote for Nikki Haley.”

In some ways, the dilemma of Levine’s wife — a registered Democrat eager for a Biden alternative — underscores the challenges facing Haley in her party’s primary. Though she could prove a forceful general election candidate against Biden, she needs to first peel off primary voters who generally like the former president’s policies.

So far, she has finished far behind Trump in the first two nominating contests — the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — and suffered an embarrassing setback Feb. 6 in Nevada’s nonbinding Republican primary where, despite being the only major candidate on the ballot, she finished behind the “none of these candidates” option.

In a column for the Dispatch, an online conservative magazine, Nick Catoggio — previously known by the pseudonym “Allahpundit” — described Haley as doing “The Half Liz” Cheney.

“There’s no venom toward Trump in the half Liz, just a patient, ever-smiling grown-up encouraging Republican voters to be as much of a grown-up as she is,” he wrote. “The repeated use of the term ‘temper tantrum’ is surely no accident.”

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who was the communications director on the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also rejected the Liz Cheney comparison, saying Haley “represents what a post-Trump future could look like.”

“Liz Cheney wanted to burn it all down — she wanted to destroy the party and had no interest in her own political future,” Conant said. “Liz was not offering a choice; she was offering a condemnation.”

Whatever role Haley now finds herself playing in the national discourse about Trump, what matters more will be how she handles herself should Trump ultimately defeat her for the party’s nomination, strategists say.

“What does Nikki do at that point?” asked Dmitri Mehlhorn, a Democratic strategist. “Does she tell people who have trusted her that Donald Trump isn’t actually that bad, that he’s better than Joe Biden?”

Some voters who fear the return of Trump view Haley as their last best chance to defeat him, and they hope she will remain an anti-Trump force even if she doesn’t win her party’s nomination.

Take Thalia Floras, 61, who attended a Haley rally last month in Nashua, N.H. She is a lifelong Democrat who switched her registration to independent to vote for Haley against Trump.

“We could see that if anybody could beat Trump, it was going to be her,” Floras said. “And we knew that part of that was the fact that we know that she can beat Biden. I have Democratic friends who said, ‘Don’t vote for Nikki Haley, because we’re afraid she’s going to beat Joe Biden.’ And I say, ‘What does that say about Nikki Haley? And what does that say about Joe Biden?’”

In some ways, what Haley represents in the Trump resistance effort has now transcended Haley’s original intentions.

“Political figures can become a little bit more beyond their own intention, beyond what they expect sometimes,” Kristol said. “She stands for something more than what she expected to, and even more than she’s publicly said.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Scott Clement and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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