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Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump stands on stage as he hosts a South Carolina Republican presidential primary election night party in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., Feb. 24, 2024.SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

Donald Trump has notched a decisive victory in the South Carolina primary, besting his only remaining opponent in her home state and continuing his swift march to the Republican presidential nomination.

Nikki Haley, however, vowed to stay in the race, painting the former president as unable to win a general election and aiming to draw a sharp contrast with him on foreign policy amid this week’s second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Trump won by a 20-point margin Saturday. The scale of his win was such that most media called the result as soon as the polls closed.

In a victory speech minutes later in the state capital of Columbia, he tried to pivot to the general election, railing against migrants coming across the border from Mexico and vowing to defeat Democratic President Joe Biden.

“We’re going to look at Joe Biden and we’re going to look him right in the eye, he’s destroying our country, and we’re going to say ‘Joe, you’re fired. Get out. Get out, Joe, you’re fired,’” Mr. Trump said.

He then brought up several of Ms. Haley’s former political allies in the state, including Governor Henry McMaster and Senator Tim Scott, to praise him.

In her own speech, Ms. Haley pointed to the roughly 40 per cent of the vote she received as evidence that, even within his own party, Mr. Trump remains deeply divisive.

“I don’t believe Donald Trump can beat Joe Biden. Nearly every day, Trump drives people away,” she told supporters in Charleston, the state’s largest city.

She reiterated a promise to keep running at least through Super Tuesday on March 5, when 15 states will hold primaries. “They have a right to a real choice, not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate.”

While South Carolina is only the fourth state to vote, Ms. Haley’s inability to win here – where she was twice elected governor – makes it almost impossible for her to mount an upset in subsequent primaries.

Most polls of Republican voters give Mr. Trump a national lead of more than 50 percentage points over Ms. Haley, who also served under him as United Nations ambassador. He could clinch the nomination next month when a slew of populous states vote.

Mr. Trump has campaigned less than Ms. Haley, spending much of his time tied up with legal problems, including two recently-concluded civil trials and four pending criminal cases.

Ms. Haley, whose bid is well-funded by wealthy donors, has the money to keep fighting even as more than a dozen other GOP contenders have dropped out. Her ultimate aim is unclear. She could be banking on the remote chance Mr. Trump’s court battles force him from the race, or she may be setting the stage for another run in 2028.

H. Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, said Ms. Haley’s motivation may simply be to keep her GOP faction alive amid Mr. Trump’s growing control.

“She wants to continue to make the case for her side of the Republican Party and not necessarily see the party go full MAGA,” Prof. Gibbs said. “She’s out there being the voice for traditional positions that you’ve seen go by the wayside with Trump and his supporters.”

In her stump speeches, Ms. Haley has pushed for a return to the party’s former brand of small government and international engagement. She promises to end federal involvement in health care, education and other social policy, for instance. And she champions military aid to Ukraine and support for U.S. allies.

In recent days, she has laced into Mr. Trump for threatening to “encourage” Moscow to invade NATO countries that don’t pay enough for defence and accused him of ambivalence after the death of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. She has also championed mental acuity tests for politicians over the age of 75, casting both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden as doddering old men.

“Do we really want to spend every day from now until November watching America’s two most disliked politicians duking it out?” she said this week.

Ms. Haley’s campaign made a bid for Democratic support in the state. One mailer sent by a SuperPAC backing her and obtained by NBC reminded Democrats that, under South Carolina’s rules, those who are eligible may vote in the GOP primary if they didn’t vote in the Democratic one earlier this month.

At least some Democrats said they were receptive to the idea. “She, in my mind, is the only viable candidate in this country. Biden is aged out and Trump is unstable,” said Skip Cothran, 72, as he sat outside a Haley speech in Greenville, a small city in the state’s northwest.

At a rally the night before the vote, Mr. Trump appeared to threaten department of justice investigations into “about five” acts of Ms. Haley’s without specifying what he was claiming she had done.

Mr. Trump’s supporters shrugged off his court cases. “It’s not fair what they’ve done to him. The legal stuff doesn’t bother us. It just makes me dig my heels in deeper,” said Gina Blosser, 61, as she waited for an event with the former president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, in the coastal resort town of Beaufort.

She credited Mr. Trump with speaking to her top issues: migration at the U.S.-Mexico border and the economy. “I’ve been with him from the beginning. There is no doubt in my mind that he can fix what’s broken. Trump is going to do what he says he’s going to do.”

Much of Ms. Haley’s pitch here rested on her 2011 to 2017 stint as governor, touting her handling of natural disasters, the aftermath of the white supremacist mass shooting at Mother Emanuel church and luring manufacturing businesses to South Carolina.

“She did a lot to help the state during times of crisis,” said Greg Rayfelton, 40, as he stood in the audience of a Haley rally near Clemson University, her alma mater. “She’s definitely got a good record of being a trustworthy person. You can see how confident and intelligent she is.”

However, she lacked strong relationships with other South Carolina Republican leaders, Prof. Gibbs said, which deprived her of a significant legislative legacy and may explain why so many have campaigned for Mr. Trump. The former president has also made hay out of her embracing investment by Chinese companies. The state, meanwhile, has the proportionately fastest-growing population in the country, meaning the current electorate is different from the one that last voted for Ms. Haley a decade ago.

Still, Ms. Haley’s loss may have less to do with a rejection of her than the sheer dominance of her opponent.

“I don’t think she’s unpopular,” Prof. Gibbs said. “I just think that Trump has captivated a significant portion of the Republican vote in South Carolina and there is not a lot of evidence that people are willing to shift off of that.”

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