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Haley says golf course is closest Trump has come to combat after he criticized absence of her husband

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to members of the media during a campaign event at Thunder Tower Harley Davidson Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Elgin, S.C. South Carolinians will participate in their Republican primary on Feb. 24.Sean Rayford/Associated Press

Nikki Haley, in the final stretch before the South Carolina primary, is going all in on attacking former President Donald Trump, her former boss and chief rival, whom she trails by a huge margin in her home state.

Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, has used Trump’s comments over the weekend, about foreign policy and her family, to question his fitness for office, after months of treading lightly on his legal travails and increasing authoritarian rhetoric.

In Elgin, South Carolina, on Monday, she cast Trump as disrespectful to military personnel, a threat to national security, and too addled by old age to effectively serve. The harsher approach is central to her argument that the country does not want a rematch between President Joe Biden and Trump and that she is more electable than the former president in a general election, even as polls show her behind Trump by more than 30 points in South Carolina.

Haley has used a special counsel report that suggested Biden struggles with memory problems to argue that the same is true of Trump, pointing to his conflation of her with Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and his seemingly off-script remarks.

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“The special counsel comes out and says he’s mentally diminished,” Haley said of Biden, before adding: “That’s not far from Donald Trump.”

She criticized the former president’s comments over the weekend insinuating that her husband, who is deployed to Africa with the National Guard, left the country to escape her. Those remarks, Haley said Monday, were insulting to all military personnel, adding, “With that kind of disrespect for the military, he’s not qualified to be the president of the United States, because I don’t trust him to protect them.”

Speaking to reporters afterward, she got more personal.

“The most harm he’s ever come across is whether a golf ball hits him on a golf cart, and you’re going to go and mock our men and women in the military?” she said. “I don’t care what party you’re in, that’s not OK.”

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Haley also hit Trump for suggesting he would encourage Russian aggression against U.S. allies behind on payments to the military alliance. She said the remarks put service members and “all of our allies in harm’s way.”

“Donald Trump is taking the side of a thug,” she said, noting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its detainment of Evan Gershkovich, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal.

And she said Trump had his “fingerprints on” a slew of other examples of what she called Trump’s chaotic influence over the party, like the collapse of a bipartisan border deal in Congress and reports of turnover at the Republican National Committee. Haley has also, in recent weeks, criticized Trump for spending $50 million in campaign funds on court appearances.

Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for Trump, pointed to his record in office in saying “there has been no greater advocate for our brave military men and women than President Trump.”

“Nikki Haley advocates for greater foreign intervention and supports endless wars that would leave more American heroes dead,” Leavitt said in a statement. “It’s a good thing she will be never be commander in chief.”

Before the first Republican nominating contest in Iowa in January, Haley’s stump speech, which she rarely deviated from, often played up her record in South Carolina, foreign policy experience as Trump’s United Nations ambassador and her vision for the future. But since the Iowa caucuses, where she finished third, she has gradually ramped up her attacks on Trump, progressing from offhand jabs about his administration’s raising the national debt to centering his weaknesses in speeches.

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Asked about her harsher approach, and why she didn’t strike that tone sooner, Haley said she had avoided such attacks because she wanted to focus on a vision for the future.

“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 said.

Haley’s biggest challenge, however, was perhaps best exhibited by her events themselves: At the Harley-Davidson dealership where she spoke on a rainy afternoon Monday, she addressed around 50 people, where some chairs that were set up went unfilled.

And some who attended were not necessarily voters she needs to cut into Trump’s lead. John Schuller, a 76-year-old Democrat, said he believed it was “arrogant and selfish” for Biden “not to step off the stage and let someone new come on.” Haley, whom he plans to back in the primary, seemed like a “reasonable voice” — although he acknowledged that her path forward would be tough.

“Miracles happen,” Schuller said. “I hope South Carolina can make a miracle happen.”