Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley shakes hands...

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley shakes hands with a supporter before a campaign event on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. Credit: AP/Artie Walker Jr.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — For months, the underdog in the presidential primary refused to concede defeat. He fought hard in state after state, even as the front-runner amassed a delegate advantage that would be virtually impossible to overcome.

The extended feud between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016, which turned more bitter as time passed, left behind Democratic divisions that would ultimately contribute to their party's crushing general election loss.

Eight years later, some Republicans fear that history may soon repeat itself.

Nikki Haley 's path to the GOP nomination is rapidly shrinking following recent losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. But she's vowing to stay in the race indefinitely, backed by thousands of committed donors, a key slice of the party's moderate wing and a new willingness to attack the mental fitness and legal baggage of 2024 Republican front-runner Donald Trump. And the harder Haley fights, the more Republican officials fear she may hurt his long-term prospects in the all-but certain general election ahead against Democratic President Joe Biden.

Former Trump adviser David Urban described Haley’s continued presence as a distraction, a drain on resources and a source of frustration.

“Nobody on Trump’s team thinks (a Biden matchup) is going to be easy. It’s going to be a bumpy road. It’s going to be a tough race. They want to hit the starter’s pistol and get going,” Urban said. “People need to start coming together and working together. But right now, none of that is happening because she’s still out there stoking the anti-Trump fire.”

‘I am not going anywhere’

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump...

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump drives past Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley's campaign event on Thursday, Feb.1, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. Credit: AP/Artie Walker Jr.

Of course, Haley is in a much different position than Sanders was during the epic 2016 campaign. The Vermont senator actually won contests, including his 22-point victory in the New Hampshire primary. Unless she manages a dramatic turnaround, Haley's 11-point deficit in the same state last month may prove to be the high point of her presidential bid.

Haley decided to skip Nevada’s presidential caucuses next Thursday in favor of a state primary election two days earlier that does not award delegates. Trump could embarrass Haley in her home state of South Carolina later in the month, where the former president has a loyal following. A Washington Post-Monmouth University poll on Thursday found Trump with a 26 point lead in the state.

Yet in practical terms — and in Haley's calculus — the GOP primary has barely begun. Just two states have voted so far in a process that will ultimately span all 50 before concluding at the GOP’s national nominating convention in July.

“I am not going anywhere,” she told reporters on Thursday. “We have a country to save. And I am determined to keep on going the entire way. As long as we can keep closing that gap, I’m gonna keep staying in.”

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at...

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. Credit: AP/Artie Walker Jr.

Such comments increasingly draw Trump's ire as he's eager to move past the primary completely and focus on Biden. At roughly the same time Haley was speaking, Trump was attacking her on social media. One post he shared said, “Nikki Haley is bought and paid for by our political enemies,” and another described Haley as “deeply disliked” by a growing number of Americans.

Some Republicans worry that Trump’s preoccupation with Haley, whom he frequently calls “birdbrain,” might further alienate moderate voters and suburban women.

HALEY ASSETS GROWING

Haley is getting stronger by some measures.

Her campaign has raised $5 million from small-dollar donors in the days since she finished in second place in New Hampshire, according to spokesperson Nachama Soloveichik. She's also in the midst of a four-state fundraising tour that will feature at least 10 closed-door events with wealthy donors. This week's initial swing through New York netted more than $1.5 million, Soloveichik said.

Republican fundraiser Eric Levine, who co-hosted one of the New York events, said the few hundred Haley donors who gathered earlier in the week “remain as committed to Haley as ever."

Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney highlighted the candidate's commitment to the race during a meeting with some of the GOP's leading donors earlier in the week in Florida, according to two Republican officials in the room granted anonymity to share private discussions. Trump senior adviser Susie Wiles also delivered a presentation to the group, which was designed to highlight the former president’s tightening grip on the nomination.

Many major donors remain critical of Trump, but some of the biggest would-be Haley supporters are essentially in a holding pattern ahead of South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary. They believe she is essentially fully funded for the rest of the month and there's little more they can do in the short term, according to the officials.

Two of the group's founders, billionaire hedge fund managers Ken Griffin and Paul Singer, each donated $5 million to Haley's 2024 bid in recent weeks, according to federal filings made public this week.

Trump also continues to report strong fundraising totals. But his legal troubles are consuming a huge portion of his donors' dollars.

Two of Trump’s political action committees spent roughly $50 million in donor funds on the former president's legal fees last year, according to federal filings made public this week. And his legal costs are continuing to grow.

HALEY'S AGGRESSIVE STRATEGY

Haley has begun to ratchet up attacks against Trump, a deliberate strategy designed to highlight the former president's glaring liabilities, including his legal baggage and his age.

The campaign lumped Trump and Biden together in a new attack ad this week calling them “Grumpy Old Men.” She's also working to link the 77-year-old Trump's refusal to debate to questions about his mental acuity. And in a Wednesday interview on the "Breakfast Club" radio program, she blamed Trump for the state of the nation's politics.

“He’s made it chaotic," she said. "He’s made it self-absorbed."

Her message appears to be resonating with a key group of swing voters who play a pivotal role in general elections.

In New Hampshire's recent primary, for example, Trump won a decisive victory against Haley backed by his popularity among traditional Republican voters. But he lost a majority of moderates and about two-thirds of those who identify as independents, according to AP VoteCast. He also lost about 6 in 10 who have college degrees, and he’s shown a persistent vulnerability among voters living in suburbs.

But the Republican base is still decidedly behind Trump. And a growing group of Republican elected officials on Capitol Hill are calling for Haley to quit the race. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said recently that it was time to unite behind Trump.

B.J. Hopper, an 81-year-old self-described “Never Trumper," is doubtful that Haley will catch Trump, but she attended Thursday’s stop in South Carolina’s capital city because she's trying to be hopeful.

“It’d be a miracle,” Hopper said of a Haley victory in the state’s upcoming primary.

As much of the attention shifts to South Carolina, Haley's campaign insists her goal there isn't to win, but simply to show growth compared to New Hampshire. She's building campaign infrastructure in next-up Michigan and several states that host primary contests on March 5, also known as "Super Tuesday."

The Haley campaign has already rolled out leadership teams and “Women for Nikki” chapters in all 15 Super Tuesday states. A pro-Haley super PAC is also coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts in South Carolina, Michigan and multiple super Tuesday states. That's in addition to the Koch-backed conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, which has devoted its army of grassroots activists on the ground in several key states to helping Haley.

Specifically, the group is knocking on doors, sending pro-Haley mail and running online ads in Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia.

But the Koch network will not continue to support her if it determines there is no path to victory, according to conversations between Koch officials and donors at a private retreat last week in California, where Haley discussed the state of her presidential campaign during a short video call.

During a separate session with top donors, AFP Action senior advisers Emily Seidel and Michael Palmer reaffirmed the group's decision to endorse Haley given that she is the last Trump alternative standing, according to an official with direct knowledge of the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

Seidel and Palmer also made clear to donors that the group would not make future investments to any campaign if there is no opportunity to win, the official said, pointing to the Kochs' longstanding business-like approach to politics.

Meanwhile, other Republican operatives believe Haley's continued candidacy creates unnecessary risks for the notoriously undisciplined Trump.

“The longer she hangs around and the more Trump focuses on her, the greater likelihood you get unforced errors,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “She’s giving ammunition to Biden’s campaign.”

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