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    ‘Fertile ground.’ Can Super Tuesday save Nikki Haley’s bid?

    Nikki Haley’s homecoming in South Carolina could be the end or the reboot for a campaign that’s betting on right-leaning independents to help stop former President Donald Trump from being on the 2024 ballot.

    After winning the Iowa caucuses, Trump bested Haley, his former UN ambassador, in the New Hampshire primary by about 11%.

    That has most observers, including President Joe Biden’s campaign, calling Trump the inevitable Republican nominee.

    But coming out of Tuesday’s contest there is a wide canyon of support for Trump between GOP and independent voters that the Haley campaign is hoping to leverage before the clock runs out.

    “If somebody was forcing me to vote between one of the two, I would vote for Nikki Haley every day of the week and twice on Sundays,” Anthony Dobson, a 46-year-old retired Navy veteran, who lives in Lakewood, Colorado, told USA TODAY.

    “It’s not about who she is,” he added. “It’s about who she isn’t—which is Donald Trump.”

    Dobson like millions of other Americans won’t be able to cast a ballot until at least March 5, which is when more than a dozen state will hold their primary election on Super Tuesday.

    In the midst of a growing pessimism about her campaign, Haley is expressing confidence that significant wins can be obtained.

    Todd Belt, a professor and political management program director at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said avoiding an embarrassing loss in her home state is the first priority, but that the recent results indicate a significant portion of conservative-minded voters want to ditch Trump.

    “There are states out there that are more amenable to the type of message that Haley has than the ones she’s been in,” Belt said. “She does have a chance on Super Tuesday, I think the big question is: can she get there?”

    Trump, meanwhile, is projecting a sense of inevitability while his supporters demand Haley end her bid.

    The former president — who continues to refer to Haley as a “bird brain” — warned donors who help her will be “permanently barred” from the MAGA movement. His campaign boasts roughly 150 current and former elected officials in South Carolina who have endorsed him.

    Super Tuesday ‘fertile ground’ Haley camp says

    A Republican candidate needs 1,215 delegates to clinch the GOP presidential nomination, and as of now Trump has 32 to Haley’s 17.

    Haley’s people are eager to spotlight how well she did with independents in the New Hampshire primary, and believe that bodes well going into Super Tuesday where 15 states and one territory representing 1,151 delegates will be up for grabs.

    Out of those states, for instance, 11 have primaries that like New Hampshire are open to more than just strictly GOP voters.

    Trump won among Republican voters by 49% in the Granite State, according to the results. Yet Haley was victorious with independents there by 22%.

    Betsy Ankney, who serves as Haley’s campaign manager, presented a sunnier view of the upcoming contests, saying the marathon of elections on March 5 is “significant fertile ground” for them.

    In a campaign memo released this past week, she specifically points to seven of those states ­— Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Vermont, Virginia and Texas — as having demographics in their favor.

    She indicated that no matter the outcome in South Carolina, Haley plans to see this through.

    “After Super Tuesday, we will have a very good picture of where this race stands,” Ankney said.

    Trump’s advantage: winner take all

    If polls show Haley faring better than Trump against President Joe Biden, why would GOP primary voters not flock to her campaign as the better option?

    That’s because electability is not a chief concern for those Republican voters, said Josh Putnam, a political scientist and founder of FHQ Strategies LLC, a non-partisan political consulting firm.

    “They feel comfortable that Trump will do alright,” he says.

    Putnam, who specializes in party delegate selection rules, presidential campaigns, and elections, emphasizes while there are some states where Haley may be able to snatch up a decent number of delegates, he doesn’t see a scenario where she either wins contests or wins more delegates in any given state than Trump does.

    “She could press on, but I just don’t see what that does for her in the short term or the long term,” he said.

    Liz Mair, a former Republican National Committee spokeswoman who worked for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the allocation rules are less favorable for a candidate like Haley, who is seeking to topple a front-runner, than it was eight years ago.

    In 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, led a similar effort in the primary race against Trump. He had accumulated delegates but was pummeled on Super Tuesday that year before eventually dropping out in mid-March.

    Mair said because the GOP has changed many of its rules, however, there is even less room for Haley to wage a comeback.

    “A lot of these states are winner take all and the bar to being considered winning enough in order to take everything is pretty low,” she said.

    If Trump wins more than half of the statewide vote in California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Utah and Vermont, for instance, he will take all 323 of the delegates in those states.

    If he gets more than half in each of the congressional districts in Alabama, Oklahoma and Virginia, then he wins all of the 141 delegates there.

    That leaves Haley with only a handful of states with a portion of delegate gains, including some in the deep South that demographically favor the former president.

    “Trump will continue to win the lion share even in those states and continue to build an insurmountable delegate lead,” Putnam said.

    Anti-Trump narrative v. delegate count 

    Going into South Carolina down 25 percentage points and with a pledge to stay through Super Tuesday in March, the Haley campaign should worry less about delegates, some GOP thinkers say.

    Instead, she must grow her narrative that Trump’s behavior and other troubles make him unelectable.

    “Trump will almost certainly win the majority of the delegates pre-convention, but should he stumble — or get criminally convicted — Haley should be on hand to pick up the banner,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a Republican strategist from New York.

    “Crisp and consistent messaging is more important than delegates at this point, as counterintuitive as that seems.”

    Haley did just that on Friday after Trump made a scene when he walked out of a Manhattan federal courtroom as a lawyer for writer E. Jean Carroll made closing arguments in the sex abuse defamation trial against him.

    When the former president used his social media platform to rail against Carroll, he wrongly stated she is “running for office.” Haley pounced quickly in her own post Friday, questioning Trump’s mental faculties after he mixed up her for Nancy Pelosi in a recent speech.

    “Wait a second, did Trump just say the person suing him is ‘running for office?’ Is he confused again? I was not in a New York City courtroom,” Haley said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday.

    Rick Wilson, co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and a former Republican political strategist, said the next four weeks will be critical for Haley in terms of convincing conservative and right-of-center independents that Trump’s weaknesses are serious.

    He warned focusing too much on raking in more delegates or polls showing Haley beating Biden won’t guarantee her the nomination even if Trump hits a pothole legally or otherwise.

    “If something does happen to him, you’ll see other people get back in the race to try to seize the throne,” Wilson said. “There could be 20 people jumping in.”

    Haley must persuade a portion of the GOP electorate that sticking with Trump is a fatal choice this November, he said, which will be difficult given the fealty many right-leaning voters have for the former president.

    Anthony Raye, 39, a Republican from Thomaston, Maine, said he will be voting for Trump over Haley in March no matter what happens, and that he’s not impressed with polls that show Haley beating Biden by a higher margin than Trump.

    “Anybody can beat Biden. I believe Trump’s going to win by a landslide,” Raye, who works at his father’s insurance agency, told USA Today.

    Justin Ogden, 33, an independent data entry specialist from San Antonio, Texas, said he isn’t excited to vote for either candidate. He described Trump as “almost oafish” but that Haley should drop out.

    “I am not a fan of (Trump). Personally, I have never liked him,” Ogden said. “But seeing what certain policies were able to do to strengthen our economy before the pandemic… I know that back in his presidency there were aspects of my life that were better.”

    Phillip M. Bailey is a national political correspondent for USA TODAY. You can follow him on X at @phillipmbailey

    Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is a White House correspondent for USA TODAY.  You can follow her on X @SwapnaVenugopal

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