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Nikki Haley challenges Donald Trump on her home turf in South Carolina as Republican primary looms

Trump, turning his campaign focus to the southern state days after an easy victory in Nevada, is expected to rev up his supporters at a Saturday afternoon rally in Conway, near Myrtle Beach.

Nikki Haley (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)(AP)

In his rally speech, Trump insulted Haley by using his derisive nickname for her, “Birdbrain”, and lavished praise on South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, who endorsed him early. Trump claimed that he selected Haley to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations in 2017 and represent America on the world stage only because he was motivated to make McMaster — her second-in-command — the governor of South Carolina.

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“She did a job. She was fine. She was OK. But I didn’t put here there because I wanted her there at the United Nations,” he said. “I wanted to take your lieutenant governor, who is right here, and make him governor.”

“I wanted him because I felt he deserved it,” Trump added.

Trump, who has long been the front-runner in the GOP presidential race, won three states in a row and is looking to use South Carolina’s February 24 primary to close out Haley’s chances and turn his focus fully on an expected rematch with Democratic President Joe Biden in the general election.

Haley skipped the Nevada caucuses, condemning the contest as rigged for Trump, and has instead focused on South Carolina, kicking off a two-week bus tour across the state where she served as governor from 2011 to 2017.

Speaking to about a couple hundred people gathered outside a historic opera house in Newberry, Haley on Saturday portrayed Trump as an erratic and self-absorbed figure not focused on the American people.

She pointed to the way he flexed his influence over the Republican Party this past week, successfully pressuring GOP lawmakers in Washington to reject a bipartisan border security deal and publicly pressed Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to consider leaving her job.

“What is happening?” Haley said. “On that day of all those losses, he had his fingerprints all over it,” she added.

Haley reprised her questions of Trump’s mental fitness, an attack she has sharpened since a January 19 speech in which he repeatedly confused her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Haley (52) has called throughout her campaign for mental competency tests for politicians, a way to contrast with 77-year-old Trump and 81-year-old Biden.

“Why do we have to have someone in their 80s run for office?” she asked. “Why can’t they let go of their power?”

A person in the crowd shouted out: “Because they’re grumpy old men!”

“They are grumpy old men,” Haley said.

Haley continued the argument when speaking to reporters afterward, citing a report released on Thursday by the special counsel investigating Biden’s possession of classified documents. The report described Biden’s memory as “poor”.

“Americans can do better than two 80-year-olds for president,” Haley said.

Bob Pollard, a retired firefighter, said he cannot support Trump because “he’s a maniac”, adding that Trump’s campaign, in which he speaks frequently of “retribution” and his personal grievances, has “turned into a personal vendetta”.

Harlie O’Connell, a longtime South Carolina resident who backs Haley, said she plans to support the eventual GOP nominee but prefers it is someone younger.

Her husband, Mike O’Connell, drew a contrast between the candidates’ approach to foreign policy and said he wants the US to continue assisting Ukraine in its war with Russia, as Haley has pledged.

“We need to encourage friendships and not discourage them,” he said of international relations.

Trump, in his remarks and a social media post on Saturday, criticized foreign aid generally and a plan in Congress to provide nearly USD 100 billion in aid for Ukraine and Israel.

He also repeated his praise for foreign strongmen, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “very smart, very sharp”, Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as “one of the toughest guys”, and Chinese President Xi Jinping smart because he “controls 1.4 billion people with an iron fist”.

In Conway, people began lining up to see Trump hours before the doors opened to the arena where he was set to take the stage later.

Organisers expecting a capacity crowd set up screens outside where an overflow crowd would be able to watch Trump’s appearance.

The city sits along the Grand Strand, a broad expanse of South Carolina’s northern coast that is home to Myrtle Beach and Horry County, one of the most reliably conservative spots in the state and a central area of Trump’s base of support in the state in his past campaigns.

Tim Carter, from nearby Murrells Inlet, said he had backed Trump since 2016 and would do so again this year.

“We’re here to stand for Trump, get our economy better, shut our border down, more jobs for our people,” said Carter, a pastor and military veteran who runs an addiction recovery ministry.

Cheryl Savage from Conway, who was waiting on the bleachers to hear from Trump, said the former president is “here to help us”.

Savage said she backed Haley during her first run for governor in 2010 but now feels she is hurting herself by staying in the race.

“He deserves a second term,” Savage said, of Trump. “He did a fantastic job for four years.” (AP) SZM

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