Trump enters South Carolina's Republican primary looking to embarrass Haley in her home state

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump is looking to win his fourth straight primary state on Saturday over Nikki Haley in South Carolina, aiming to hand a home−state embarrassment to his last remaining major rival for the Republican nomination.

Trump went into the primary with a huge polling lead and the backing of the state’s top Republicans, including Sen. Tim Scott, a former rival in the race. Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump, has spent weeks crisscrossing the state that twice elected her governor warning that the dominant front−runner, who is 77 and faces four indictments, is too old and distracted to be president again.

In all but one primary since 1980, the Republican winner in South Carolina has gone on to be the party’s nominee. But Haley has repeatedly vowed to carry on if she loses her home state, even as Trump positions himself for a likely general election rematch against President Joe Biden.

Trump’s backers, including those who previously supported Haley during her time as governor, seemed confident that the former president would have a solid victory on Saturday.

“I did support her when she was governor. She’s done some good things,” Davis Paul, 36, said as he waited for Trump at a recent rally in Conway. “But I just don’t think she’s ready to tackle a candidate like Trump. I don’t think many people can.”

Trump has swept into the state for a handful of large rallies in between fundraisers and events in other states, including Michigan, which holds its GOP primary Tuesday.

He has drawn much larger crowds and campaigned with Gov. Henry McMaster, who succeeded Haley, and Scott, who was elevated to the Senate by Haley.

Speaking Friday in Rock Hill, Trump accused Haley of staying in the race to hurt him at the behest of Democratic donors.

“All she’s trying to do is inflict pain on us so they can win in November,” he said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

In some of those rallies, Trump has made comments that handed Haley more fodder for her stump speeches, such as his Feb. 10 questioning of why her husband — currently on a South Carolina Army National Guard deployment to Africa — hadn’t been campaigning alongside her. Haley turned that point into an argument that the front−runner doesn’t respect servicemembers and their families, long a criticism that has followed Trump going back to his suggesting the late Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, wasn’t a hero because he was captured.

That same night, Trump asserted that he would encourage countries like Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” against NATO member countries who failed to meet the transatlantic alliance’s defense spending targets. Haley has been holding out that moment as evidence that Trump is too volatile and “getting weak in the knees when it comes to Russia.”

After one of Haley’s events, Terry Sullivan, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Hopkins, said he had planned to support Trump but changed his mind after hearing Haley’s critique of his NATO comments.

“One country can say whatever it wants, but when you have an agreement, among other nations, we should join the agreements of other nations, not just off on our own,” Sullivan said. “After listening to Nikki, I think I’m a Nikki supporter now.”

Haley has made an indirect appeal to Democrats who in large numbers sat out their own presidential primary earlier this month, adding into her stump speech a line that “anybody can vote in this primary as long as they didn’t vote in the Feb. 3 Democrat primary.”

Some of those voters have been showing up at her events, saying that although they planned to vote for Biden in the general election, they planned to cross over to the GOP primary on Saturday as a way to oppose Trump now.

In any other campaign cycle, a home state loss might be detrimental to a campaign. In 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out shortly after losing Florida in a blowout to Trump, after his campaign argued the political winds would shift in his favor once the campaign moved to his home state.

And Haley’s campaign can’t name a state in which they feel she will be victorious over Trump.

But in a speech this week in Greenville, Haley said she would stay in the campaign “until the last person votes,” arguing that those whose contests come after the early primaries and caucuses deserved the right to have a choice between candidates.

Haley also used that speech — which many had assumed was an announcement she was shuttering her campaign — to argue that she feels “no need to kiss the ring,” as others had, possibly with prospects of serving as Trump’s running mate in mind.

“I have no fear of Trump’s retribution,” Haley reiterated. “I’m not looking for anything from him. My own political future is of zero concern.”

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Weissert reported from Washington.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP and Will Weissert can be reached at https://twitter.com/apwillweissert.

Meg Kinnard And Will Weissert, The Associated Press

Photo: AP