By Gram Slattery, Nathan Layne and James Oliphant
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) – Donald Trump didn’t just want to win in New Hampshire, he wanted to beat Nikki Haley so badly that his sole rival for the Republican presidential nomination would drop out before the next competitive contest in South Carolina a month away.
The former president easily bested the former South Carolina governor on Tuesday, but his carefully crafted strategy to drive Haley out of the race fell short, denying Trump the chance, for now, to focus all his attention on Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden and the November general election.
Trump, 77, was full of fury after Haley, 52, vowed in a Tuesday night speech to fight on, just two days after the other leading Republican contender, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, ended his campaign.
“Who the hell was the imposter who went up on the stage before, and like, claimed a victory?” Trump asked a crowd of supporters in New Hampshire, adding, “I don’t get too angry. I get even.”
As he campaigned in snow-covered New Hampshire over the past week, Trump kept his eye on South Carolina, 700 miles (1,100 km) to the south, which will hold the next large contested primary on Feb. 24.
The Trump campaign spent weeks planning a show of support aimed at knocking Haley out of the race before the South Carolina contest, said Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser.
On Friday, Trump locked in the endorsement of former rival U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who campaigned with him alongside the state’s governor, Henry McMaster, and other state officials.
At a Monday Trump rally, Scott told Reuters he had been torn between endorsing his former rival and staying out of the race altogether. Back-to-back calls from Trump on Jan. 14 and 15 persuaded him to act.
“Staying on the sidelines was not the right thing to do,” said Scott, who was first appointed to the Senate by Haley in 2013. On Tuesday night, he stood behind Trump during his victory speech and urged Haley to drop out.
The timing of that endorsement, just days before the New Hampshire vote, took Haley’s team aback, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One of them, who talks regularly with Haley, said Scott’s announcement “seemed designed for maximum impact.”
“It really sends a signal that the party is unified behind President Trump,” Miller told Reuters. “There’s nowhere else for Nikki Haley to go. It’s time for her to get out of the race.”
Ending the primary campaign so early would be a historic feat for a candidate not currently occupying the Oval Office.
‘FAR FROM OVER’
Haley argues she would have the best chance of beating Biden in the Nov. 5 election.
“This race is far from over. There are dozens of states left to go. And the next one is my sweet state of South Carolina,” she said on Tuesday. “I’m a fighter and I’m scrappy and now we’re the last one standing next to Donald Trump.”
She planned a Wednesday evening rally in Charleston, South Carolina, and campaign manager Betsy Ankney told reporters this weekend the campaign had locked in a $4 million TV ad buy in the state with the first ads airing on Wednesday.
DeSantis had also vowed to persist after finishing behind Trump in the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, but ended his campaign and endorsed Trump less than a week later.
In a memo released earlier on Tuesday, Haley’s campaign manager argued that Super Tuesday – March 5, when 15 states and one U.S. territory hold simultaneous primaries – could be a turning point, as many are likely open to a Trump alternative given their “favorable demographics.”
Across New Hampshire, Haley talked up her experience as United Nations ambassador under Trump and warned of what she called the “chaos” that follows him – an allusion to the 91 criminal counts he faces in four trials, including two related to his attempt to overturn his 2020 election loss.
The fact that Haley stitched together a coalition of Republicans and independents to finish about 11 percentage points behind Trump in New Hampshire reflects his possible general election challenges with voters outside his base. In a University of New Hampshire poll released two days before the primary, 28% of likely Republican voters said Trump hurt the country during his four-year term.
But polls show Trump with a far broader lead over Haley in South Carolina than in New Hampshire, 37 percentage points ahead, according to the FiveThirtyEight.com polling average.
Trump remains popular among Republicans primarily because he delivered on policies they like, including lower taxes and a tough stance on China, said Dean Lacy, a political science professor at Dartmouth College.
Lacy said he could see Haley continuing her campaign if she has the backing of anti-Trump donors and given the prospect that Trump’s legal troubles could eventually hobble him.
“I don’t see her winning,” Lacy said. “But she could stay in the race as a backup plan.”
Eric Levine, a New York-based Haley donor and fundraiser, said he was continuing to support her and raise money. “I expect that the donor base will remain loyal,” he said.
Scott’s endorsement was one of a series by South Carolina officials that illustrated how completely the Republican establishment in South Carolina – and indeed, across much of the U.S. – has closed ranks around Trump.
In a surprise, Trump picked up South Carolina U.S. Representative Nancy Mace’s endorsement on Monday. She and Trump have long had a poor relationship: Trump in 2022 backed a primary challenger to Mace, while Haley threw her weight behind her.
Trump did not solicit Mace’s endorsement, according to a person familiar with his campaign operations. Mace made her decision after assessing the polls in South Carolina, which show Trump leading Haley in the state by nearly 40 percentage points, according to a person with knowledge of her thinking.
“The Trump campaign is anything but normal,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former senior aide to U.S. Senator Rand Paul. “Trump is going for the political termination of Nikki Haley early and trying to end this race.”
(Reporting by Gram Slattery, Nathan Layne and James Oliphant, additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)