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Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley talks to a supporter during a campaign stop in Moncks Corner, S.C. on Feb. 23, ahead of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election.BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

Bruno Loefstedt had hoped 2024 would finally be the year that brought him back to the Republican Party. Once a loyal GOP voter, the 66-year-old retired army officer couldn’t bring himself to support Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections, repelled by his divisive political style.

This time around, Mr. Loefstedt thought, the party might instead nominate a candidate more in line with his views: Nikki Haley, the former governor of his state of South Carolina. Among other things, he believed, she could push the Republicans toward strong support for military aid to Ukraine and a balanced approach to dealing with migration.

“It’s got to be about more than just security on the border. We rely on immigration for labour,” he said this week outside a speech by Ms. Haley at a conference centre in downtown Greenville, a small city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “And Ukraine is in an existential struggle for the free world.”

But Ms. Haley is struggling. Ahead of South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, she is 30 points behind Mr. Trump in most polls. His lead is even larger across the country. The former president is aiming to drive his final remaining nomination opponent from the race and set up a months-long general election rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden.

“The party I’ve been voting for since 1976 disappeared in 2016. I’d like to have a choice in the next election. I would really like to vote Republican again,” Mr. Loefstedt said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, to tell you the truth.”

So far, Ms. Haley, who also served as the U.S.’s ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Trump, is remaining defiant.

In the Greenville speech, she vowed to stay in the contest whatever Saturday’s result. She warned that Mr. Trump is getting “more unstable and more unhinged” and assailed the “herd mentality” that has seen her party line up behind him. “I feel no need to kiss the ring,” she said.

She argued that it would be nonsensical to quit the race so early – only three states have so far voted. Still, it will be virtually impossible, observers say, to mount a challenge to Mr. Trump if she can’t even defeat him on her home turf, this Deep South red state of 5.1 million people.

To some of Mr. Trump’s supporters here, Ms. Haley’s well-funded campaign and big-business-friendly image is representative of the political establishment he vows to upend.

“Unfortunately, she plays both sides of the aisle. She accepts money from the deep state. She might as well just say she’s a liberal at this point,” said Terry Davies, 60, who owns a plumbing company on the resort island of Hilton Head.

Others said they never really bothered to form strong opinions on Ms. Haley because they knew where their vote was going no matter who ran. “Why should we have to look for anyone else? Trump is it,” said Jerry Blosser, 64, a retired school-operations worker from Greenville.

For many of them, Ms. Haley’s increasingly sharp attacks on Mr. Trump, particularly on foreign policy, have fallen flat. She has accused him of abandoning Washington’s allies to Moscow, seizing on his threat to “encourage” Russia to invade NATO countries that fail to meet defence spending targets and his promises to immediately end the war in Ukraine if elected.

“I agree with totally calling NATO out over their failure to pony up,” said Keith Muehlfeld, a 72-year-old retired judge, as he headed into a Trump campaign event at a veterans’ centre in Beaufort, a picturesque seaside town of palm trees and clapboard storefronts. “Ukraine has got to negotiate at some point. You’re not going to defeat the Russian army. It’s just throwing money down a rat hole.”

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a town hall in Greenville, S.C. on Feb. 20.SAM WOLFE/Reuters

He is also unconcerned by Mr. Trump’s four criminal cases, including charges for trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat. “I think he’s being targeted. It’s political. It’s malicious prosecution from the get-go,” Mr. Muehlfeld said.

The campaign has become increasingly nasty, with Mr. Trump even taking aim at Ms. Haley’s husband, Michael, a veteran of the Afghanistan War currently deployed with the South Carolina National Guard in the Horn of Africa. In speeches, Mr. Trump has suggested that Mr. Haley went overseas to get away from his wife. “What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone. He knew,” he said on one occasion.

Ms. Haley’s election pitch leans heavily on the Reaganite orthodoxy that used to dominate the party before Mr. Trump’s rise. She criticizes the welfare state, pushes a hawkish brand of internationalism and hits Mr. Trump hard on his seeming admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Trump is siding with a thug,” she told a rally in the college town of Clemson days after the prison death of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny. “Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents.”

The 52-year-old Ms. Haley also casts Mr. Trump, 77, and Mr. Biden, 81, as a pair of tired old men “at risk of dementia,” lacking the mental acuity to manage national crises.

The argument has garnered some purchase among moderate voters, including Democrats, who abhor Mr. Trump but are concerned about Mr. Biden’s age. Under South Carolina’s rules, Democratic supporters who didn’t vote in the party’s primary earlier this month can cast ballots in the Republican contest instead.

“I like what Biden’s done, but I also feel worried about the idea of two 80-year-olds competing for office. Some of my most liberal friends are coming out to vote for her,” said Betty Baldwin, 56, a Clemson professor who attended Ms. Haley’s rally.

Ms. Baldwin also credited Ms. Haley with being a capable governor, particularly in her response to record flooding in 2015. “She was a positive leader. She didn’t divide people.”

Aleigh Tisdale, a 21-year-old student, said Ms. Haley “has a better heart” than Mr. Trump. “I just have more faith in her, in her morals and values.”

Ms. Haley’s efforts to pitch a big tent, however, have become fraught over the highest-profile moment in her governorship: her decision to take down the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state legislature after a white supremacist massacre at a Charleston church.

In recent days, she has tried to avoid alienating some right-wing voters by casting support and opposition to the symbols of the pro-slavery rebellion as morally equal. “I didn’t pick who was right or who was wrong,” in the flag debate, she said.

Given the long odds her candidacy faces, Ms. Haley’s motivation for staying in the race is unclear. Mr. Trump has publicly ruled her out as his vice-presidential running mate. It also seems unlikely that, even if he is convicted criminally before the election, he would drop out.

She may instead be setting herself up for another run in 2028 or simply hoping that her candidacy will help preserve some part of the pre-Trump Republican Party for a future day when his grip slackens.

To Mr. Loefstedt, at least, his course is clear if Mr. Trump is renominated: He will hold his nose and vote for Mr. Biden.

“I don’t agree with what he stands for,” Mr. Loefstedt said, “except that he’s not trying to undermine the democratic institutions of the country.”

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