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    Haley tries to avoid a WWE smackdown. Trump’s not giving her a way out

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    BAMBERG, S.C – Nikki Haley dodged the female-president problem for as long as she could.

    When she entered the race a year ago, she was the only female candidate in an anticipated field of former governors, a U.S. senator and even a former vice president. Of all the likely politicians to challenge Donald Trump’s hold on the GOP, few believed she’d be the last candidate standing. 

    It only took her becoming viable following contests in Iowa and New Hampshire for Trump to bring back a tried and tested campaign approach when running against women and minorities: insult them.

    He has called her a birdbrain, made fun of her given name – Nimarata – and tried to sow doubt about her marriage by asking the whereabouts of Maj. Michael Haley. And the marriage quip comes despite the fact that Trump’s own wife, Melania, has not been seen next to him on the campaign trail since he launched his latest White House bid.

    It’s on Haley to respond. But it poses a challenge for the candidate, who has been hungry to be defined by her policies and governing style in an era when voters have shown an appetite for mudslinging, name-calling and a level of personality politics that sit outside the former South Carolina governor’s comfort zone. Now, it seems that Haley might have to punch back to stay in the fight, leaving many questioning whether it will be enough.

    Haley has limited her attacks on Trump to poking him, keeping the respect of voters who want a return to civility in politics –  even as polling indicates it’s not getting the job done.

    In a gaggle with reporters after an Elgin event on Monday, an incredulous Haley noted that moments before, she had made her most forceful comments against Trump to date.

    “Did you just hear everything I just said? Because that was a pretty big attack on him,” Haley told USA TODAY. 

    She has called the comments about her husband, Michael, who is serving in the U.S. military overseas, careless, disgusting and part of a pattern of disrespectful behavior.

    “What bothered me is if you mock one person in the military, you’re mocking everybody in the military,” Haley said Tuesday morning in Bamberg.

    Yet, even there, surrounded by family friends and some of her most staunch supporters, she refused to call out Trump for suggesting she was not born in the U.S. and amplifying a false claim that she can’t be president because her parents were immigrants.

    As she has done throughout the primary, Haley relied on a campaign surrogate to make the point for her.

    “I am proud to say Nikki Haley was born right here in Bamberg, January the 20th, 1972, to her lovely parents, Raj and Ajit Randhawa, in our Bamberg County Hospital. Dr Michael Watson delivered Nikki,” Bamberg Mayor Nancy Foster said as she opened for Haley at the event.

    Haley ticked through her talking points and stuck to her carefully manicured bio. She hit Trump as an agent of chaos, a pal of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and a draft dodger with a penchant for criticizing veterans without getting into the underlying issues that he is using to try to undermine her standing.

    Is taking jabs at Trump enough?

    Former GOP communicator Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist who quit the Republican Party amid Trump’s ascent in 2016, said Haley must go all-in on her assault and stop tiptoeing around her attacks. 

    “You can’t go into a boxing ring and say: ‘OK, I know I’ve got to knock you out to win, but I’m just going to jab at you. I’m not even going to swing a right hook at you,” Bardella said. “You’re going to lose.”

    Haley is the first and only woman in South Carolina history to serve as the state’s governor. Courtney Stanley, 29, a nursing assistant who attended the Bamburg rally, said Haley should talk more about it.

    “I think it would give a lot of women more initiative, especially in the South,” Stanley said. 

    When it comes to Trump’s personal attacks on Haley, though, Stanley said, “I think her not saying anything is speaking more volumes about her as a person and her morals.”

    Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who studies race and politics, said Haley is shying away from talking about her heritage and gender to her detriment –  especially when Trump’s playbook is clear. 

    “Part of this is just, ‘I’m going to throw everything at the wall, it has worked for me before. I used it to discredit (Barack) Obama and burnish my own credentials. I’m going to do it again. And I’m going to take out this person once and for all on her home turf,” Gillespie said.

    Nevertheless, Haley has adopted a more aggressive posture toward Trump now that the competition is down to two people. She has incorporated digs at Trump over his age, temper and mental acuity since losing to him in New Hampshire.

    Bardella, the Republican-turned-Democrat, chalked it up to Haley having nothing left to lose. Earlier in the year, there was speculation she could be in his Cabinet again, possibly as vice president. The former president’s allies and supporters quickly quashed that notion, and Trump himself ruled out having Haley on his ticket.

    The GOP has changed since Haley won the South Carolina governor’s mansion as a Tea Party candidate nearly a decade and a half ago, he said.

    “Now, we have seen with Donald Trump the blueprint that many candidates who have followed ever since in other offices – they use racism and xenophobia and sexism as political tools to win votes. And it works,” he said.

    Haley said Monday that she wants the focus of the race to be on the American people and not on her. “If I make it about me that’s no different than what Donald Trump does every single day, because all he does is make everything about himself,” she told USA TODAY.

    “If I made it about me, what good does that do? I’m making it about America. That’s what you should want to serve.”

    Haley gets a hero’s welcome in Bamberg

    Harriet Coker, 81, was one of Haley’s teachers.

    She attended the Bamberg rally with a friend from church and another retired teacher who also taught Haley in the seventh grade. The women sat in the front row of Haley’s event, wearing red, white and blue “Nikki Haley for President” pins that displayed the candidate’s face.

    “Where does he think she’s from?” said Coker, who substituted for Haley’s mother, a fellow teacher, on the day the candidate was born.

    Coker said that Trump’s comments about Haley’s husband were “absolutely disgusting” and that her former pupil has handled herself appropriately in the race.

    Most of Haley’s family was not able to be with her on Tuesday when she visited Bamberg, but she told supporters that her brother, Mitti Randhawa, wanted to be at the morning event at the town’s veterans park.

    Trump’s comment about Haley’s husband peeved Randhawa, an Army veteran who posted a string of X posts and reshares over the weekend blasting his sister’s opponent. In the posts, he called Trump a “complete idiot” and labeled the MAGA movement a “cult.”

    “You never speak bad about other people, but you do defend yourself,” he wrote in one of the messages.

    Randhawa later apologized on social media for the posts. Haley said Monday that she had also had a talk with her college-age son, Nalin, about his rhetoric after a swipe at Sen. Tim Scott at a weekend rally, where her son gave an introduction of his mother. He called Scott, a former presidential contender who endorsed Trump last month, “Judas” for betraying Haley. She had appointed Scott to the U.S. Senate when she was governor.

    The talk may not have gone the way his mother wanted. As he entertained the crowd at an event Tuesday afternoon in Summerville, for which she was almost two hours late, he repeated the attack. He also compared another one of her former competitors who endorsed Trump, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, to Pennywise, the clown from the Stephen King thriller “It.”

    GOP struggles with race and racism

    Trump is certainly not pulling his punches. 

    His assault on Haley’s birthplace was similar to an attack he used against Obama, the nation’s first Black president and a Hawaiian native. Trump spent years demanding Obama produce his birth certificate. 

    Haley has fended off accusations of racism herself after failing to describe slavery as the cause of the Civil War and claiming that Texas had a right to secede from the United States. 

    Her comments sparked a backlash in both instances, and she had to backtrack. She now holds campaign rallies and no longer takes questions from her audiences.

    Nearly a decade ago, it was Haley who called for the Confederate flag to be taken down at the South Carolina State House after a mass shooting at a historically Black church in Charleston. Some of Haley’s opponents in that fight have endorsed Trump, her friend Scarlett Wilson said Tuesday. And they have been using their perch to bash her.

    “She took on those boys. Some of those who were standing on the Capitol steps not too long ago, and she said the flag needs to come down, and it needs to come down now,” said Wilson, the solicitor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, as she introduced Haley in Bamberg.

    Wilson was referring to a news conference Trump’s endorsers held in Columbia.

    In her introductory remarks, Bamberg’s mayor, Foster, made a point of noting that Haley is South Carolina’s only female governor and the first Indian-American to serve in the Cabinet – parts of the candidate’s background that are not in her stump speech.

    The approach sets Haley apart from Vice President Kamala Harris, who emphasizes the fact that she is the first Black and Indian-American woman to serve in her position.

    Gillespie said Trump is attacking Haley precisely because of her race and gender. Haley’s refusal to respond only hurts her run, she said.

    “In general, the reason why Haley is loath to do this is because Republicans have been taught to reject identity and to deny the fact that identity politics is a real thing,” the political scientist said. 

    Haley is never going to go as far as some may want, South Carolina State Rep. Nathan Ballentine said after Haley’s event in Elgin on Monday afternoon. Answering Trump’s attacks could come off as juvenile.

    But even the Haley supporter conceded she could hit Trump harder. 

    “I wish she would. I think a lot of her supporters wish she would, because apparently that’s what plays to America,” Ballentine said. “That’s like the WWE out there instead of a policy-type debate.”

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