Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event in San Antonio, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2024. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — Nikki Haley has repeatedly promised to remain in the Republican primary race against Donald Trump until Super Tuesday, which offers the last big chance for the former governor and ambassador to start catching up to the former president in delegates for their party’s 2024 nomination.

But Haley has also repeatedly hedged on her plans after Tuesday, turning the day’s results — across 15 states — into a potentially pivotal moment in the course of her campaign.

“Super Tuesday, we’re going to try to be competitive. I hope we go forward,” she said on Friday. “But this is all about how competitive we can be.”

Notably, she has no public events scheduled that day, not even the standard election night party, and will instead be back home in South Carolina to watch the results privately.

With Trump continuing to handily beat Haley in the polls, it remains unclear where she could see significant success on Tuesday or what she’ll do after that, though she has sounded skeptical of a potential third-party bid — while declining to specify, right now, if she would endorse Trump in the general election.

What has become clear in recent weeks is Haley’s argument for why other conservatives shouldn’t vote for Trump.

Among other criticism, she has said she is not sure Trump would follow the Constitution if elected a second time and warned of disaster for Republicans in November if they select him as the party’s nominee, going as far as to call such a scenario “suicide” for the country.

It’s a marked shift in tone for Haley, who initially pursued a strategy — last year — of limiting her attacks against Trump, including saying in a primary debate that she would support him as the nominee if he were convicted of a crime, which she recently walked back. (He denies wrongdoing.)

She maintained during a radio interview last month that the change in tone on Trump was intentional.

Taking on Trump

Indeed, Haley has vastly broadened the scope of her attacks against Trump — accusing him of “shifting” the GOP away from what she has said are some of the party’s core principles like cutting spending and maintaining international alliances, and questioning his fitness for office in light of his age at 77.

She has also decried Trump endorsing his daughter-in-law to become a key leader of the national Republican Party, warning over the weekend that if he succeeds, “the RNC now is just going to be about Donald Trump” and would morph into his own “legal slush fund,” which his campaign denies.

Trump has fired back, insulting Haley as a “birdbrain” and saying Democrats would prefer her to run against President Joe Biden since she’s “easy to beat.”

In trying to make her case, Haley has likened Republicans to being aboard a sinking ship and voting for her over Trump as akin to jumping in a life raft.

But that message appears to be taking on water with the voters she must win over.

The crux of her message has been that despite Trump’s success in the primaries so far, she does not believe he is a viable general election candidate as long as he is regularly losing roughly 30% to 40% of the vote in nominating contests.

Nonetheless, her electability argument was rejected in her home state of South Carolina late last month. Eighty-two percent of people surveyed in a primary exit poll said Trump was likely to win in November, versus 59% who said the same of Haley.

She has lost all but one of the nominating contests so far — securing her first victory in Washington, D.C., on Sunday night and winning 19 of its delegates with about 1,300 votes. By comparison, Trump beat Haley in South Carolina with about 452,000 votes.

And she still trails Trump by some 200 delegates — 247 to 43.

To secure the nomination, a Republican candidate needs 1,215 delegates, and 865 are up for grabs on Tuesday. The Trump campaign has insisted they are on track to clinch the nod later in March.

What Tuesday could hold

Even allies are not sure where Haley may emerge victorious — something billionaire backer Charles Koch recently signaled after his super PAC pulled its support for Haley following her loss in South Carolina, announcing it would instead focus on congressional races for Republicans.

“I can’t tell you what state she’s got a shot, you know, I don’t look at the polls and all that sort of thing,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Haley surrogate, told ABC News after introducing her at a campaign rally over the weekend in Needham, Massachusetts.

Sununu, who said Massachusetts was potentially “key” for her on Tuesday, noted that Haley is hitting the campaign trail in all of the states she can.

Asked what a win would look like on Tuesday for her campaign, he pointed to her continuing to accrue delegates rather than getting more votes than Trump, though under the party’s rules, Trump can shut her out of any delegates in places like California as long as he wins more than 50%.

Sununu said that if Haley “pulls a couple of wins out, that’s great. But the most important thing is making sure that that folks, voters, have a say, and hopefully there’s more states to come.”

Owing to her relative popularity among more moderate GOP primary voters, Haley’s best chances at securing delegates on Tuesday will likely be in states with open and semi-open contests that allow people beyond registered Republicans to participate.

A sign of her campaign’s eagerness to capitalize on those potential opportunities, Haley has spent the last week campaigning exclusively in 10 states with such primaries and released a seven-figure national cable and digital ad buy ahead of Super Tuesday. (Her campaign has more broadly touted the strength of her fundraising in recent weeks while she has gone after Trump.)

Still, Haley’s campaign has been keen to avoid putting out benchmarks, with the candidate herself saying simply she wants to be one thing: competitive.

“We think in states like Massachusetts or Colorado or Vermont, Maine, Virginia, she can come very close, perhaps in the 40% range, and that would be a win for us,” said Frank Laukien, co-chair of the pro-Haley super PAC Independents Moving the Needle.

The political action committee, which Laukien chairs along with five other businesspeople, has primarily focused on turning out moderate and independent voters who don’t typically vote in primaries, spending $1.6 million so far in supporting Haley, according to Federal Election Commission records.

“We’re very active right now in the New England states — Massachusetts in particular, but also Maine and Vermont. There is a ground game,” Laukien added, listing states that all run open and semi-open primaries.

While rules vary from state to state, Republican primaries generally allow for front-runners to secure large numbers of delegates, employing outright winner-take-all systems or awarding delegates proportionally until a candidate obtains more than 50% of the vote.

That could spell bad news for Haley in states such as California and Texas — the two largest delegate-awarding states, where Trump is currently leading by wide margins, according to 538’s polling average.

“I don’t want to talk about how long y’all think I’m gonna stay in this,” Haley told reporters ahead of a rally in Utah last week after being asked about her plans beyond Super Tuesday. “I want the conversation to be: Where are we going in the country?”

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