Analysis: Haley taunts Trump and he takes the bait. Will she keep it up?

On the evening of the New Hampshire primary, supporters of Nikki Haley cheer her while she speaks at her election night party in Concord, N.H. MUST CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post
Former president Donald Trump speaks on Tuesday night in Nashua, N.H., after he was projected to be the New Hampshire primary winner. MUST CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Donald Trump doesn’t respond well to women who challenge, question or mock him. They bring out the worst in him. Nikki Haley is doing all three and has turned the Republican nomination contest into something worth watching.

Put aside whether Haley can win next month’s South Carolina primary or how well she will do on Super Tuesday and beyond. Put aside questions about “the math” or “her path” to the nomination or discussion about whether the race for the Republican presidential nomination essentially ended after Trump’s decisive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

All of those are relevant but right now beside the point. Haley has found a soft spot in Trump’s armor. She seems to relish the opportunity to torment him. That could make the next few weeks much more interesting than anyone might have expected only a few days ago – if she keeps it up.

That Haley, the former president’s lone remaining Republican challenger, is enjoying this moment was clear at her first event following Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Returning Wednesday to her home turf of South Carolina, she took full opportunity of the opening provided by Trump the night before. After Haley took the stage on primary night before the president and declared that the race was “far from over,” he responded by belittling her with a huffy, angry and at times incoherent victory speech.

“So we got out there and we did our thing and we said what we had to say,” Haley told a crowd of supporters on Wednesday in North Charleston, S.C. “And then Donald Trump got out there and just threw a temper tantrum. He pitched a fit. He was insulting. He was doing what he does. But I know that’s what he does when he’s insecure. I know that’s what he does when he is threatened. And he should feel threatened without a doubt.”

Haley also reminded the audience that Trump had confused her with Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, during an appearance in New Hampshire over the weekend. She says politicians older than 75 should undergo mental competency tests – drawing a contrast between herself, 52, and the 77-year-old Trump, as well as with President Biden, 81.

She also struck at Trump’s unwillingness to debate his Republican rivals. She wants more than anything a one-on-one with the former president. “Bring it, Donald,” she said, taunting him. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Much of this was said in a soft, Southern drawl and with a smile on her face. It was not strident, just a little fun talk among friends. But it got the job done. Her comments went viral.

As anyone who has watched Trump over the years knows, Haley isn’t the first woman to get under his skin. He doesn’t like strong and persistent women, is especially bothered by those who don’t pay him utmost respect and deference. He lashes out – and sometimes pays a price.

On Friday, a jury in New York awarded E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million in damages for defamatory comments he had made about her. A different jury earlier had found him guilty of sexually abusing and defaming her.

Trump constantly disrespected Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. She was, he said, “unbalanced,” “unhinged” and “pathological.” He made vulgar remarks about a bathroom break she took during a debate and an even worse one about her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

He put his sexism out there for everyone to see during the first Republican debate in 2015, when Megyn Kelly, then a Fox News anchor, said to him: “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’” Trump interrupted: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” To which Kelly replied, “No it wasn’t.”

After the debate, discussing what had happened during that exchange, Trump went even farther, making a crude reference to Kelly’s menstrual cycle. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” he said. His campaign tried to clean it up by claiming he was referring to her nose.

No woman recently has drawn his ire more than Liz Cheney, the former Wyoming congresswoman who broke with Trump over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and has been on a mission ever since to keep him out of the Oval Office.

Cheney, the vice chair of the House select committee that investigated the attack, has been relentless in arguing that Trump is unfit for the presidency and a danger to the future of U.S. democracy. She lost her seat in Congress because of this, defeated by a Trump-backed Republican challenger, but that’s only prompted her to keep tearing into Trump as someone who should never again be near power.

Trump has come out of the first two nominating contests in a strong position and is perturbed that Haley won’t bow out, as all of his male challengers have. But as a quasi-incumbent, that was the expected outcome. Though he won a majority of the vote in both states, more than 40 percent of voters said they preferred someone else. Haley sees this as good reason to fight on.

Not many people thought Haley would be the last Republican standing against Trump. Among those who thought she might be: Haley herself. Her history of beating the odds – and “the fellas,” as she calls her male opponents past and present – has given her a kind of confidence that no one else in the race exhibited.

When she ran for governor in 2010, she was little known in a field that included prominent White male politicians. With help from an endorsement by Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, she beat them all in the primary. Today, the South Carolina political establishment is standing with Trump. Does Haley care? She has campaigned wearing a T-shirt that says: “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.”

Two days before the New Hampshire primary, advisers to Florida governor Ron DeSantis were describing his path ahead. He was running a marathon, looking to gather delegates even while losing. Haley, they said, was running a sprint. Hours later, however, DeSantis quit the race, having effectively run out of breath.

Haley is now the long-distance runner, though for how long no one knows. The pressure to get out comes from various quarters. Even the Republican National Committee, supposedly neutral in the nominating contests, was looking to urge her to quit, though that presumptuous idea seemed to fade quickly.

Trump, however, has warned that anyone who contributes to her campaign “will be permanently banned from the MAGA [Make America Great Again] camp.” That’s probably an idle threat. But it is indicative of the hardball tactics his campaign will employ in South Carolina, whose Republican primary electorate is more conservative than New Hampshire’s and, in 2016 at least, more evangelical than Iowa’s, according to network exit polls.

Trump is certainly strong within the base of the Republican Party but still a powerfully divisive force with the broader electorate. His admiration for authoritarian leaders is a warning about his aspirations if he wins in November. He is under indictment on 91 felony counts. No Republican can know with any certainty what further damage his legal problems will do to him by September or October, or how a broader electorate will evaluate him. Republicans are taking a risk with him as their nominee (just as Democrats are taking a risk with Biden).

The presidential election will be decided in part by suburban voters in half a dozen states. Haley can speak to and for suburban Republicans and independents, especially women, whom Trump would need in a general election.

But what will she do with this opportunity? That’s the big question. Does she go all in by attacking Trump? She has hesitated to do so, delivering glancing blows but not robust or sustained criticism. Does she continue to focus on Trump’s obvious weaknesses: his bluster and his grievance-laden message as inadequate to win a general election? Does she take her comments in North Charleston and turn them into a broader brief?

Various considerations will come into play. Money obviously is one. She lost one prominent donor after New Hampshire but also raised a quick million dollars. At what point might the spigot turn off? Her future is another. She’s said she has no interest in being Trump’s vice president, though anyone in her position would say that. She also has said she has no interest in a third-party campaign.

She is, she says, a loyal Republican. But what does she see as her future within the Republican Party, particularly if Trump loses and the party then rebuilds, either in his image or as a post-Trump party that will bear little resemblance to the pre-Trump GOP? However she plays it in the coming weeks will have consequences.

These are not easy questions to answer. Will Haley carry on in the vein of her recent criticism or revert to the more cautious and careful candidate of previous months? Trump gave Haley an opening. How far she takes it is up to her.



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