BLUFFTON, S.C. (AP): Nikki Haley drew the largest crowd of her campaign Monday at an event in her home state of South Carolina, as she tries to close the gap with GOP front-runner and former President Donald Trump just weeks from the start of the primary season.
Around 2,500 people gathered to hear Haley, the former governor and United Nations ambassador, according to officials at a satellite campus of the University of South Carolina along the state’s southern coast. Half that number watched her event from video screens outside the venue after it reached capacity.
That’s significantly higher than the 2,000 people who attended her February launch event in Charleston, according to Haley’s campaign. Hours ahead of Monday’s start time, the line for attendees wrapped around the venue, which had to be changed from its original location due to demand.
Haley’s staff have cast her campaign as being on a rising trajectory. She often hits on this theme herself, noting her ousting of a 30-year state incumbent in the South Carolina House, then beating three initially better-known candidates to become the first woman to serve as South Carolina governor.
But Haley remains among a pack of candidates competing for a distant second place with Trump, who has led the GOP field since kicking off his third presidential campaign last year. Later this week, Haley will head back to New Hampshire, where she has stumped heavily. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has more than a dozen events scheduled this week in Iowa. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns across South Carolina on Friday.
The question of how Haley could close the gap with Trump was on the minds of some who gathered to hear her on Monday.
Vincent Francescangeli, who lives on Hilton Head Island, said he is leaning toward supporting Haley but is taking a wait-and-see approach as the election’s first votes draw closer, noting that Trump is still on his list of candidates whom he might support.
“The world was a safer place when Trump was in office,” Francescangeli said. “But Trump’s got a lot of baggage, and you’ve got to ask yourself — is Trump really electable? I don’t know.”
Haley hit the usual points of her campaign speech on Monday, drawing applause and cheers following calls to term limit members of Congress, subject politicians to mental competency tests and end trade relations with China “until they stop murdering Americans with fentanyl.”
Haley invoked her former boss saying, as she has before, that she believes Trump was “the right president at the right time” but argued the time is right for a new generation in U.S. leadership.
“I agree with a lot of his policies, but the truth is, rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” Haley said. “We have too much division in this country, and too many threats around the world to be sitting in chaos once again.”
On Monday, Haley riffed on Trump’s recent appearance in her home state at Saturday’s football rivalry matchup between the University of South Carolina and her alma mater, Clemson University. Trump was a guest of Gov. Henry McMaster, Haley’s successor and an alumnus of South Carolina, which lost to Clemson.
“How did it work out for the Gamecocks having Trump show up?” Haley said. “Not so lucky for the Gamecocks, just sayin’ — go Tigers.”
Asked why he came out to see Haley, Francescangeli said that he had been impressed by her performance in the GOP presidential debates, the sole woman on stage.
“She didn’t come across weak,” Francescangeli said, referencing her debates. “She came across to me like a powerhouse. She stood up to those guys. These guys are trying to beat her up. She kicked right back. I was impressed.”