Trump’s ‘achilles heel’? Haley’s refusal to drop out infuriates ex-president

It was a moment for Donald Trump to be gracious, magnanimous, perhaps even presidential. Instead he lashed out at his opponent’s clothes. “When I watched her in the fancy dress that probably wasn’t so fancy, I said, ‘What’s she doing? We won,’” he said of rival Nikki Haley in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.

Trump had just won the first primary election of 2024 and all but clinched the Republican nomination for US president. Party leaders and campaign surrogates are now eager to banish Haley to irrelevance, move on from the primary and unify against Democrats. They want Trump to pivot to an almost inevitable rematch with Democrat Joe Biden in November.

Yet the 77-year-old remains consumed with rage over Haley’s unwillingness to quit the race. His petulance offers a reminder of the unhinged behaviour that turned off independent voters in New Hampshire and could prove to be a liability in a head-to-head contest with Biden. It is also at odds with what is an unusually professional and disciplined campaign operation.

Wendy Schiller, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “Donald Trump wants the race to be over and we see evidence of why that’s important for the Trump campaign from his speech, which was essentially a train wreck and exhibited all the worst tendencies of Donald Trump. It was an undisciplined Trump and this is what turns off independent voters.”

She added: “This is the achilles heel for the Trump campaign and they know it. The sooner this gets wrapped up then he doesn’t have any more of those impromptu late night speeches. Their worry is not that they’re not going to win the nomination; their worry is the damage that Trump having to respond to Haley will do in the general election with independent voters.”

Trump’s investment of emotion and energy in attacking Haley is wildly out of proportion for the minimal threat that Haley poses. He won the Iowa caucuses in a landslide – she was third – and beat her by double digits in New Hampshire. No other Republican candidate in history who won the first two contests has failed to clinch his party’s nomination. His dominance looks set to render the next five months of primaries irrelevant.

Newt Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker and ex-presidential candidate, said: “Trump’s best strategy is to assume he is the nominee and go straight at Biden and ignore Haley, let her flounder around until she either runs out of money or realises that there is no future. She’ll presently disappear.”

Republicans have coalesced around the former president, putting pressure on Haley to step aside. She is not competing in next month’s Nevada caucuses. Trump has racked up endorsements from most of South Carolina’s leading Republicans and opinion polls show him with a big lead in the state, which has a strong base of Christian evangelicals, ahead of the primary on 24 February.

The two candidates in 2018, when they were on better terms. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Yet Haley, 52, a former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the UN, is soldiering on. She tweeted on Thursday: “Underestimate me, that’s always fun.” Next week she is scheduled for a fundraising tour that includes stops in New York, Florida, California, Texas and South Carolina. She is expected to continue to draw donor support as Never Trumpers within the party make a last stand and hope he could yet be derailed by the 91 criminal charges against him.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “I do know some of her donors and my guess is they want her staying in to put Trump through his paces. They don’t put it on the record but they think there’s a reasonable chance that something will happen to Trump, either health-wise or conviction to the extent that he can no longer be the nominee.”

Haley describes herself as “scrappy”, continues to hold rallies and is becoming more aggressive in her denunciations of Trump. On Wednesday she launched a $4m advertising campaign in South Carolina describing the prospect of a Biden v Trump election as “a rematch no one wants”. Its narrator says: “Biden – too old. Trump – too much chaos. There’s a better choice for a better America.”

How long can she last? Michael Steele, a Trump critic and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “My bet is two weeks. You really want to go into that race in your home state and lose by 30 or 40 points? Where is the political viability after that? We’ve seen candidates who run actual general election presidential campaigns and they lose their home state and we never heard from them again.”

Haley’s tenacity has enraged Trump. He has branded her “birdbrain”. He has threatened to blacklist anyone who donates to her campaign. He has railed against her frequently on social media, writing: “Could somebody please explain to Nikki that she lost – and lost really badly. She also lost Iowa, BIG, last week. They were, as certain non-fake media say, ‘CRUSHING DEFEATS.’”

The insults and outbursts are a reminder of why Trump alienated moderate voters in the past. While his win in New Hampshire was historic, it also exposed general election vulnerabilities, showing him to be highly popular with Republicans but highly unpopular with independents, who were allowed to take part in the Republican primary under the state’s rules.

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There has never been such a wide gap between the Republican vote and the independent vote in a New Hampshire Republican primary. According to CNN’s exit polls, Trump won Republican voters by 74% to 25%, but Haley won independents 58% to 39%.

Forty-two per cent of voters said they would not consider Trump to be fit for office if he were convicted of a crime. An analysis by Fox News found that 35% of voters in New Hampshire would be so dissatisfied with a Trump nomination that they would not vote for him in November.

Steele, a host on the MSNBC cable news network, added: “There’s 91 indictments hanging over this guy. Of course he’s vulnerable but everyone wants to keep puffing him up like he’s some tiger or some lion. It’s just ridiculous.

“I just wish people would get honest about what’s in front of them. This guy is vulnerable as hell. He’s weak as hell. But in reality TV land, he’s the guy that fires people: he’s rough, he’s tough, he’s single-minded. No, he’s a petulant little boy who shows that petulance when he’s challenged.”

Biden’s campaign is working on the premise that Trump will be the nominee. He has delivered two major speeches about the threat that Trump poses to democracy and the dangerous rise of white supremacy. This week he held a joint event with his vice-president, Kamala Harris, in Virginia to promote reproductive freedom, highlighting Trump’s role in the supreme court’s Dobbs decision that overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist, said: “The Dobbs decision basically became this before-and-after moment in American politics where there just became this sense that the Republican party had become too ugly, too extreme, too dangerous, and it has struggled mightily in election after election since the spring of 2022.”

He added: “You’re starting to see, even in the early going here, there is a lot more weakness than strength coming out of the Republican party in the last couple of weeks. It’s because Maga [Make America great again] has become unattractive even to Republican voters. Fear and opposition to Maga is the most powerful force in American politics. It’s why Republicans keep losing, and Republicans have chosen a candidate who is ultra-Maga to be their nominee in 2024.”

Title: Trump’s ‘achilles heel’? Haley’s refusal to drop out infuriates ex-president
Source: the Guardian
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Date: January 28, 2024 at 06:50AM
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