“I’m just going to stand outside and watch this on the screen,” said Randy Wynne, a 55-year-old Bluffton man who was among those blocked from entering before they could even reach the door.
The event — Haley’s first in the state since fellow South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott dropped out of the race earlier this month — marked Haley’s rise in the GOP primary. But if there’s one critical place for Haley to edge out GOP front-runner Donald Trump, it will be in her home state. And the former president, who drew rousing cheers in South Carolina when he took the field in the South Carolina-Clemson Palmetto Bowl game this weekend, is still 30 points ahead of her here.
“Trump certainly has a very engaged core base — that’s undeniable,” said Chad Walldorf, a South Carolina Republican donor who now supports Haley after first supporting Scott. “Certainly any politician would appreciate that as an engaged base. »
But, Walldorf said, “the question going forward is: Is this half the Republican electorate? I think ultimately that won’t be the case.
Haley do have momentum. After Scott’s departure and with DeSantis’ support, Haley is the only candidate new donors and supporters are flocking to in the primary undercard race. And for Republicans desperate to stop Trump from winning the nomination, South Carolina’s early primary could prove crucial.
For all the attention now on Iowa and New Hampshire, Republican donor Frank Lavin said, “South Carolina is going to be critically important.”
Lavin, Ronald Reagan’s former White House political director, also initially supported Scott in the primary and confirmed to POLITICO on Monday that he now supports Haley. In addition to delivering a check, Lavin has consulted with Haley’s political and financial teams, is hosting a fundraiser for her in February in San Francisco and will run as Haley’s delegate in California.
Trump, Lavin said, “has done a good job, so far, of winning despite a lot of headwinds, despite all kinds of concerns about his legal problems, his potential health problems and his electability problems “.
Given this, her supporters recognize that Haley’s success depends largely on Trump’s actual strength, with Republican primary voters falling somewhat short of what poll after poll has shown for months.
“I think there will be a reckoning going into next year, and some of his poll numbers are overstated, and some of his results will be lower than what the numbers are right now,” said The wine.
So far, the numbers are still overwhelmingly on Trump’s side. His campaign focused on South Carolina – the fourth state to vote early after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – from the early days of his 2024 presidential bid, announcing in January a slate of high-level backers including the Republican governor and the state’s top brass. senator, even though Haley and Scott were openly considering their own campaigns at the time.
Trump has the support of 80 current and former South Carolina elected officials — more than any other Republican in the race — and has mobilized his supporters in the state to knock on doors and make phone calls daily, said Austin McCubbin, director of Trump for the state of South Carolina.
McCubbin dismissed Haley’s recent surge in Iowa and New Hampshire, calling her a “paper tiger” with “a lot of tough talk.”
“She’s been languishing as a teenager all this time in South Carolina, and she hasn’t broken out yet,” McCubbin said. “As Tim dropped out and DeSanctimonious turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to the legacy of Jeb Bush’s campaign memory, this support comes to us, not his.”
Haley’s rise in national polls and in early states is undisputed. But it remains to be seen whether his rise will do significant damage to Trump’s lead.
Inside – and outside – the crowded campus rec center, a venue significantly larger than the brewery the campaign had originally planned for the Bluffton event, many spectators made it clear they would not would ever consider supporting Trump in the primary, suggesting that Haley’s support is not necessarily his.
“I’m independent, I’m interested in a woman president and I don’t want any more Trump,” said Dale Wagner of Sun City, who said she intends to vote in the state’s Republican primary for Haley, the only woman. In the race.
Ruth Gardner, another Sun City resident, said she was impressed by Haley’s performance in debates and her foreign policy experience, and appreciated that she was from South Carolina. When asked if she had at any point considered supporting Trump in the primary, Gardner’s eyes widened. Her handmade earrings moved with her shaking head.
“I didn’t vote for this man the first time because he treats women like trash,” Gardner said.
Across the gym, Mary Burdy of Bluffton had a nearly identical response: “He has no place in politics.” »
“I’m a Republican and I didn’t vote for him last time, and I didn’t vote for Biden,” Burdy said.
Like most other Republicans running for the nomination, Haley has resisted all-out attacks on Trump, alternating between praising some of his past policies and criticizing his personality and leadership qualities.
“The truth is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows,” Haley said Monday, using a phrase she began using regularly on the campaign trail. “You know I’m right. Chaos follows him.
The crowd let out a nervous laugh. Some started to applaud. Then the applause multiplied in the room.
“Look at the recent polls: Donald Trump beats Biden by three to four points. I beat Biden by 10 to 13 points,” Haley continued.
The crowd burst into joy.
But Haley’s strategy of not entirely isolating the pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party seems justified. Not all of Haley’s fans in the room Monday were upset with Trump.
Russ Burdy, in attendance with his wife Mary, said he was still undecided heading into the state’s February primary and was torn between supporting the former president and Haley. He had no strict criteria as to what would influence him.
His wife, Mary Burdy, expressed her analysis after his interview.
“He’ll vote for her too.”