‘The only thing left to do’: Trump campaign turns its fire on Nikki Haley to blunt her rise

Allies of former President Donald Trump say his campaign’s decision to begin hammering Nikki Haley reflects a new dynamic in the Republican presidential race.

Haley, the former South Carolina governor, has overtaken Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place, they believe, and is emerging as the strongest challenger to Trump in the early nominating contests, which begin Jan. 15 in Iowa.

The new reality, a half-dozen Trump campaign insiders and other aligned operatives said, is that Haley — not DeSantis, who has staked his campaign’s success on a strong Iowa showing — is positioned to finish second to Trump there, perhaps elevating her in the following week’s New Hampshire primary, in which polls already show her in second place.

This week, Trump’s team uncorked a 30-second ad in New Hampshire that cast Haley as weak on immigration. The attack was the first TV assault directly from Trump’s campaign, but it followed weeks of attacks by MAGA Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC that went on the air in the state last month with a spot scrutinizing Haley’s record as governor of South Carolina.

“It imposes a ceiling” on Haley’s rise, a source familiar with the Trump campaign strategy said of the new ad.

Asked whether the campaign viewed Haley as its biggest challenge, a Trump adviser said: “We will still smack Ron around, because why not, and we don’t really see her as a threat, but we understand that the donors are going to try and prop her up.”

“We get where the money is going,” the adviser added. “But we put Ron on life support, and now it’s time to do the same with Nikki.”

The anti-Haley strategy calls back to how aggressively Trump went after DeSantis early in 2023, when he was polling much closer to Trump — and briefly leading in New Hampshire. The contours of the race changed as criminal indictments against Trump rallied GOP support for him and as DeSantis failed to capitalize on short-term momentum.

Both Trump’s campaign and MAGA Inc. are in the midst of a $4.5 million anti-Haley ad buy as early-state voting nears. Much of the attack has centered on immigration policy, while the super PAC has also targeted Haley’s taxes.

Haley trails Trump by about 50 percentage points nationally but has generated some momentum in recent weeks, pulling even with DeSantis for second place in Iowa while gaining on Trump in New Hampshire.

Her allies say the new advertising blitz shows Trump is uneasy about her strengthened performance.

“I think that’s clearly got him threatened,” said former New Hampshire state Rep. Kim Rice, a Haley supporter.

Haley, her campaign and her supporters have forcefully responded to the attack ads while, at the same time, elevating them as a sign that the race is narrowing to a one-on-one contest before Iowa voters caucus.

“You only run attack ads when you’re trying to drive your opponents’ numbers down,” said Terry Sullivan, who was the campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 GOP presidential bid.

“They could just be looking to finish her off” in New Hampshire, he added. “Or they could be concerned about how close she’s getting.”

The Trump campaign’s spot tried to link Haley’s immigration positions with those of President Joe Biden, arguing both opposed Trump’s wall along the U.S. southern border, as well as his “visitor ban from terrorist nations.”

“Haley’s weakness puts us in grave danger,” the narrator says. “Trump’s strength protects us.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday, MAGA Inc. promoted tweets from a host of Trump endorsers bashing Haley for having spoken out against labeling undocumented immigrants as criminals in 2015. Earlier, the super PAC released an ad in New Hampshire hitting her for her support as governor for a gas tax increase and labeling her “high-tax Haley.”

MAGA Inc. CEO Taylor Budowich described the push to marginalize Haley in football terms. Trump’s allies, he said, were not playing “prevent” defense — a formation to guard against a deep pass late in the game — but rather trying to keep her from moving into striking distance and prolonging the nomination fight.

“Every candidate wants front-runner attention, and now Nikki Haley is getting it,” Budowich said. “Unfortunately for her, it’s front-runner for second place.”

Budowich, using the acronym for “Republican In Name Only” and alluding to Haley’s support from Reid Hoffman — a Democratic donor and a co-founder of LinkedIn — added that “what she’s quickly learning is where there’s smoke there’s fire, and we will happily torch another tax-raising, Democrat-backed RINO.”

A Republican strategist with ties to Trump’s political team said Haley had previously been useful as a DeSantis critic. But with DeSantis fading, this source said, “it’s sensible now for them to turn their attention to whacking Nikki.”

“No matter what, the media will make a big deal of it should she come in second in Iowa,” the strategist added.

Team Haley’s pushback was wide-ranging. It said Trump was misleading voters about Haley’s past comments about the border wall, saying she supported its construction but opposed it as the only solution for limiting illegal border crossings. Her campaign also pointed to past remarks in which she supported travel bans, just not on the basis of religion. Trump had called for a ban on Muslims’ entering the country.

“Nikki passed one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration bills in the country back when Trump was still a Democrat,” Haley communications director Nachama Soloveichik said in a statement. “Trump should spend more time explaining why he never fulfilled his signature promise to build a wall instead of desperately trying to mislead voters with easily debunked ads.”

As the pro-Trump advertising blitz launched, Haley has been increasingly critical of Trump, whom she has said she would support as the nominee even if he is convicted in any of the four criminal trials he faces.

Speaking Wednesday at a town hall in Milford, New Hampshire, Haley described attacks on her as “temper tantrums” and pushed back against the ad saying she raised the gas tax in her state.

“And if you’re going to lie about me, I’m going to tell the truth about you,” she said, adding: “Everybody talks about the economy under Trump, and how good it was. And it was good, right? But at what cost? We had $8 trillion in debt just in four years because of him.”

A Haley official said the new ads signal that Trump is paying attention to their candidate’s rise, particularly in New Hampshire, adding that a campaign wouldn’t spend millions on attacks unless it thought the other contender was a threat.

“We’ve been expecting this. It’s his M.O.,” this person said. “So we’re ready for it. Bring it.”

But this person added Haley is unlikely to increase the volume of her attacks outside of responding to Trump’s broadsides.

“She acknowledges that a lot of his policies were good, but a lot were not,” the Haley official said. “And when she disagrees with him, she’ll say it. She’s running to be president. She’s running because she doesn’t want Trump to be president. She wants to be president.”

The attacks are coming from beyond Trump and his affiliated organizations, too. Tucker Carlson, the right-wing media personality who is supporting Trump, recently described Haley as a “liberal” who is indistinguishable from Biden.

“Strip away all the outward characteristics and Nikki Haley is identical in her priorities to Joe Biden and the people who back Joe Biden,” he said.

Speaking about the Trump campaign’s latest attack, Rice, the former New Hampshire legislator, said Haley “doesn’t get down and dirty” with mudslinging and added that voters will be able to unearth the truth about her positions.

“Let’s be honest, we know that Trump supporters are going to believe what they want to believe,” she said. “And you’re not going to persuade them any other way. But those that are out there looking for their candidates, they’re going to seek the truth, and they’ll find it. And they’ll realize that, that the lies are in the ad and that the truth is out there. … Nikki clears these up at her town halls.”

While Trump and Haley fight over immigration, taxes and spending, they agree on one key issue at the moment — that they are the two candidates who should be fighting in the first place.

“President Trump is going to cruise to the nomination,” said Niraj Antani, an Ohio state senator and Republican congressional candidate who has endorsed Trump. “Making sure Haley doesn’t gain any traction by burying her campaign is the only thing left to do before sewing up the nomination.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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