Nikki Haley Dumps Trump in Favor of Rubio in South Carolina Primary
Policy + Politics

Nikki Haley Dumps Trump in Favor of Rubio in South Carolina Primary

© Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made it clear during her GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January that Donald Trump was not her cup of tea.

Trump fumed after the Palmetto State Republican star – who won national acclaim for her compassionate response to the mass shootings at an historic black church in Charleston last year and for engineering the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds – indirectly took the blustery billionaire to task for his hateful anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances.

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“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” said Haley, the first woman and the first Indian-American to be elected governor of South Carolina. “We must resist that temptation.”

Haley’s opinion of Trump hasn’t improved any since then, especially after she and her daughter sat through last Saturday night’s GOP debate in Greenville, S.C., where Trump sought to further humiliate former Florida governor Jeb Bush by repeatedly denouncing former President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq after 9/11.

“I took my daughter to her first debate on Saturday, and I was embarrassed to see a candidate criticize a president on one of the worst days that we’ve had in American history,” Haley told reporters at the state capitol in Columbia. “And criticize the way this president handled it. That was a sad day for America. And that was a tough time for our president. And to sit there and put him down in front of my daughter, I didn’t know what to say to that. There were no words.”

The two-term governor, one of the most popular Republicans in the state, has found those words to say. With barely three days to go before Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary, Haley will formally endorse Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for president at a campaign event Wednesday evening.

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The widely reported news of her decision provided a jolt of sort to the campaign, which has been most notable for relentless candidate sniping and bashing – mostly between Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the billionaire’s closet rival.

If Haley was looking for a horse to ride to victory on Saturday, she chose the wrong candidate. Rubio has been struggling to recover from a poor debate performance just before the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9 and is trailing Trump and Cruz in the latest CNN/ORC poll of the South Carolina race. Rubio received the support of just 14 percent of likely Republican voter. By contrast, the high-flying Trump has the support of 38 percent of Republicans and Cruz has 22 percent. In almost every other poll, however, Rubio and Cruz are a virtual tie.

To his credit, Rubio has recovered from his debate stumble and has begun to regain his momentum with the help of high profile endorsements from prominent South Carolina Republicans, including Sen. Tim Scott, Rep. Trey Gowdy and now Haley.

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But coming as it does with so little time remaining in the South Carolina campaign, Rubio’s biggest hope is that he can catch up to – or even overtake – Cruz, who has been suffering a brutal political beating in recent weeks at the hands of Trump.

As for Haley, a one-time Tea Party acolyte who has blossomed into a prominent Republican establishment figure, she has taken a principled stand – even as she has been unceremoniously dropped by Trump and his supporters from any conceivable short list of vice presidential running mates for Trump – assuming he continues to roll towards the GOP nomination.

The Fiscal Times’ Rob Garver contributed to this report