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Trump pivots to presidential race after crushing Haley in South Carolina

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Donald Trump tightened his grip on the Republican presidential nomination this weekend with a crushing 20-point victory over Nikki Haley in her home state that raised fresh questions about how much longer she can stay in the race.

However, the margin of Trump’s victory was smaller than opinion polls and many pundits had predicted, giving credence to Haley’s argument that the former president might struggle to win in a general election in November.

The Associated Press called the race for Trump almost immediately after the polls closed in South Carolina on Saturday evening. Trump won with around 60 per cent of the vote, compared to Haley on about 40 per cent.

Minutes after the race was called, Trump took to the stage at an election night party in Columbia, the state’s capital, to declare that he was shifting his focus to the general election, when he is likely to face Joe Biden. Trump made no mention of Haley and insisted he had “never seen the Republican party so unified” behind him.

The next morning, the local newspaper in Charleston pulled no punches with a front page riffing on Haley’s tagline from her two terms as governor: “It’s a great day in South Carolina.” Sunday’s headline for the Post and Courier read: “It’s a great day in South Carolina for Trump.”

“The fact that Haley lost by a solid margin shows that the Republican party of South Carolina is very much mirroring the Republican party nationally,” said Scott Huffmon, a political-science professor at Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“It has become the party of Donald Trump.”

To be sure, Trump handed Haley a blistering defeat on Saturday in a state where she was once a popular figure before leaving the governor’s mansion to become Trump’s ambassador to the UN in 2017. The former president now appears on a glide path to the Republican nomination for the White House, after decisive victories in all four early voting states.

Opinion polls suggest he will similarly dominate on Super Tuesday on March 5, when over a dozen more states will hold primary contests and award hundreds of delegates needed for Trump to shore up the nomination ahead of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this summer.

Republican US presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to supporters in Charleston on the night of the primary © Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“He is in position given his lead nationally to stack up a lot of the delegates he needs on Super Tuesday,” said Robert Oldendick, a political-science professor at the University of South Carolina. “The race is effectively over. Unless there is some totally unforeseen event, [Haley] can’t win the Republican nomination.”

But the results in South Carolina also laid bare just how many voters are dissatisfied with the former president, who is facing four separate criminal trials as he seeks another four years in the White House. AP VoteCast found that one in five Republican primary voters say they will not vote for Trump in November.

“Today, in South Carolina, we’re getting around 40 per cent of the vote. That’s about what we got in New Hampshire, too,” Haley told supporters at her own election night party in Charleston on Saturday.

“I’m an accountant. I know 40 per cent is not 50 per cent. But I also know 40 per cent is not some tiny group. There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative.”

Haley, who outraised Trump in January and has become popular with deep-pocketed donors looking for an alternative to the former president, has vowed to fight on through Super Tuesday.

Her campaign this week announced a “seven-figure” purchase of television advertisements to run in those states, and has planned a gruelling schedule of public events across the country for the next week and a half.

Haley will also hold 10 private fundraisers for wealthy donors over the course of the next seven days, according to an email sent by her campaign to donors on Saturday night and seen by the Financial Times.

“We have a country to save, and Nikki isn’t going anywhere,” the email said. “So buckle up — the sprint to Super Tuesday is going to be a wild ride.”

Still, voters in South Carolina, including those who voted for Haley on Saturday, were sceptical of her staying power.

At one polling station in Mount Pleasant, a Charleston suburb, Elizabeth Warren — no relation to the Democratic US senator — said she had voted for Biden in 2020 and would vote for him again in November in a likely match-up with Trump. But she was supporting Haley in the Republican primary on Saturday because “I will do anything to keep Trump off the ballot.”

When asked whether she thought Haley could beat Trump, Warren replied: “No, sadly I don’t. I hope so, but no.”

One 39-year-old man who voted for Haley in Mount Pleasant declined to give his name but described himself as a “conservative” Republican who did not believe Trump was a good “role model” for his two young daughters.

When asked whether he thought Haley could stop Trump, however, he replied: “No, not at all.”

“I think that the writing is on the wall, but I would be, in my opinion, a bad citizen if I were not at least exercising my privilege to vote,” he added.

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