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Haley faces tough road back into GOP after taking on Trump, lawmakers say

Former SC governor has questioned Trump’s age, mental sharpness

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley compete in the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 10.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley compete in the fifth Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 10. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Republican lawmakers see a clear path back into Donald Trump’s Republican Party for one of his former primary foes — but perhaps excommunication for his lone remaining challenger.

Some Republican members said it was a wise move by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to end his presidential bid after finishing second to Trump in the Iowa caucuses. His exit and immediate endorsement of the former president means a return to big-time GOP politics — and even, eventually, Trump’s orbit was possible, lawmakers said.

But the Republican lawmakers predicted a much different future for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations ambassador and only primary foe still standing. She has chosen to continue her primary campaign, pivoting to a message critical of Trump’s age and mental status — and that she alone could take down President Joe Biden in November.

Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney, who is not seeking reelection after being one of Trump’s chief critics within the party, recently said, “I don’t think that’s likely, but it is possible” that Haley could again seek national office as a Republican. But, he said, it is much more likely that DeSantis could try again, perhaps as soon as the 2028 election cycle.

“You may alienate some people who like your opponent. That’s the nature of negative campaign ads and messaging,” Romney said. “That’s how it works. And you make a calculation to do what you think is going to get you the nomination. That’s how it works.

“There’s so much that happens in politics, you know, that you can’t predict what the factors will be. Let’s say Donald Trump gets elected and he’s highly successful. Why then, that’d be really tough for Haley,” he added.

Rep. Nancy Mace, also a South Carolina Republican who is gearing up for her own tough reelection bid, suggested Haley should bow out so Republicans can coalesce around Trump.

“DeSantis has already endorsed Donald Trump, who is the leader of our party and the only man who can save our country. You know, he’s going to be the nominee. He’s gonna win resoundingly,” she said. “He’s crushing it in South Carolina, right? Frankly, he’s crushing it everywhere.

“The sooner that we can unite our party, the sooner we can take on Joe Biden, and that is what’s best for the party,” Mace said. “That’s what’s best for the country. And the sooner folks realize that, the better off we’re going to be.”

Since finishing a distant second to Trump in New Hampshire’s GOP nominating contest, Haley has been arguing her 77-year-old former boss has lost a step — or two – mentally and is too chaos-prone to be the leader of the free world again. She also has been making a more forceful case that she is the lone GOP figure who could defeat Biden.

“Trump goes on and on, multiple times, saying that I prevented the security on Jan. 6 at the Capitol. I wasn’t even anywhere near the Capitol. I wasn’t in office,” Haley told a campaign rally crowd late last month in Derry, N.H., referring to Trump’s gaffe in which he confused Haley with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“The reality is that he was confused. He was confused the same way that Joe Biden was going to start World War II,” she added. “He was confused the same way that he said he ran against President [Barack] Obama.”

Haley has not just gotten sideways with Trump allies on Capitol Hill, she also appears to have upset some Republican voters. She suffered an embarrassing defeat in last week’s Nevada GOP presidential preference primary — but not to Trump, who wasn’t on the ballot because he was running in the party caucuses instead..

Rather, more Nevadans who participated in the primary voted for “none of these candidates” than Haley. And it was not close: “None” received 62 percent, while 32 percent chose the former Palmetto State chief executive. Despite the setback, Haley has vowed to remain in the race.

The Nevada episode opened Haley up to criticism from her fellow Republicans, but also Democrats eager to undercut her claims that she would be the stronger candidate to take on Biden in a general election.

“Congrats to Nikki Haley on being the second choice of Nevadans to ‘no one’ and winning a grand total of zero delegates — and our apologies to Donald Trump, who will win the same number of electoral votes in Nevada this November,” Democratic National Committee rapid response director Alex Floyd said in a Wednesday statement.

Such critiques have not deterred Haley from continuing to lament the idea of nominating Trump. She is using his age and mental gaffes as a bludgeon — and doing the same to attack Biden.

Her campaign earlier this month fired off a statement with the subject line “Nikki Haley vs. Two Grumpy Old Men,” a play on the 1993 film “Grumpy Old Men” starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

“While the country is being submerged into chaos by two grumpy old men, Nikki Haley is the only candidate with the focus, stamina, and energy to make America normal again,” the campaign wrote.

Still, several Republican lawmakers interviewed for this article also caveated their assessments with the never-say-never theory about politics.

“But what happens if Trump is elected then falls on his face?” Romney said. “Gov. Haley might say, ‘See, I told you so,’ and become the nominee next time.”

A Trump ally who also hails from Haley’s home state noted that primary rivals have become allies before.

“They’re both very talented,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of DeSantis and Haley. “And, you know, the primaries will be over soon and everybody will be together again.”

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