Trump Already in General-Election Mode as Haley Pledges to Hang on Past South Carolina

Former president and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he participates in a Fox News town hall in Greenville, S.C., February 20, 2024. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)

Trump continues to act like the presumptive nominee, touting potential vice-presidential picks in interviews and calling on President Joe Biden to debate him.

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Nikki Haley is acting like a candidate who will stay in the race well beyond her home state’s February 24 primary. “South Carolina will vote on Saturday. But on Sunday, I’ll still be running for president. I’m not going anywhere,” she said during a defiant state-of-the-race speech Tuesday that seemed to preemptively acknowledge her fifth consecutive defeat to former President Donald Trump after losing to him in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and the Virgin Islands.

Haley is running ads in Michigan ahead of its February 27 primary. She’s announced state leadership teams in Vermont, Texas, Minnesota, and California and plans to traverse seven states and Washington, D.C., next week after the South Carolina primary. And she’s making it clearer by the day that she’s not going to maneuver back into the MAGA camp to preserve a future career path. “I feel no need to kiss the ring,” the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor said in Tuesday’s speech of the GOP front-runner, who now spends more time in courtrooms than on the campaign trail. “And I have no fear of Trump’s retribution. I’m not looking for anything from him.”

But while Haley is all-in on the GOP primary, Trump is starting to signal he’s already in general-election mode.

He continues to act like the presumptive nominee, touting potential vice-presidential picks in interviews and calling on President Joe Biden to debate him, even though he declined to participate in any of the RNC-sponsored GOP primary debates. 

“Nikki Haley’s campaign ends Saturday, February 24th, fittingly, in her home state, rejected by those who know her the best,” the Trump campaign wrote in a memo on Tuesday that predicted an “a**-kicking in the making” for Haley in South Carolina and said the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has a “very serious math problem” when it comes to locking up delegates for the convention.

As Haley continues to dig in her heels, Trump’s team is coasting to the July convention with a lock on the GOP establishment. He’s won endorsements from most of his former GOP presidential primary rivals. Dozens of Republican lawmakers are co-hosting a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Trump in early March. And before he’s formally secured the nomination, the former president’s 2024 campaign is already planning to stack the Republican National Committee with Trump loyalists in a leadership shakeup that many RNC members suspect could take place as early as March.

The former president has also reportedly made amends with the anti-tax Club for Growth after a Club-aligned group spent millions in ads against him in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.

Politically speaking, “it’s a very smart move for his campaign to pivot and go ahead and focus on the general,” says Aaron Evans, president of Winning Republican Strategies. “The faster we can get on the campaign trail, talking about the settled Biden record on crime, the economy, and foreign affairs — I think that really should be our full focus right now.”

Trump’s pseudo-incumbent status has allowed him to bulldoze the GOP field as he continues to  battle four criminal cases plus several civil complaints. His first criminal trial is set to begin March 25. 

Trump has worked to spin the legal woes to his advantage in the primary, casting them as politically motivated and using them to fundraise. During a pre-taped Fox News town hall that aired Tuesday evening, Trump responded to a question about the nearly $355 million civil-fraud judgment against him as a “form of Navalny,” a reference to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died (presumably killed by the regime) on Friday in a Russian prison.

But while the likely 2024 nominee has largely been spared the burden of a tough primary fight, those legal troubles have proven to be a massive drain on his finances and are expected to be a costly liability among independent voters in a general election. 

Biden, for his part, has been hammering Trump for months, as he has not had to face any formidable primary challengers. To distract from the president’s own abysmal approval ratings, Biden campaign aides are working aggressively to paint the general election as a referendum on Trump and all the chaos that surrounds him.

He is also not weighed down by exorbitant legal costs, as Trump is: New campaign-finance filings show Biden’s campaign ended January with almost $56 million on hand, while Trump’s campaign lagged behind with $30 million.

The legal bills keep piling up for Trump: His PAC spent nearly $3 million fighting his various legal challenges last month, on top of the $50 million it spent last year. 

The Haley campaign raised $11.5 million last month — but spent $13.1 million, the first time its spending outpaced its fundraising. 

Haley has spent nearly every campaign event in recent months repeating the same line over and over again: that 70 percent of Americans are dreading another Trump vs. Biden rematch. “Do we really want to spend every day from now until November, watching America’s two most disliked politicians duke it out? No sane person wants that.” 

And yet, barring some unforeseen turn of events, we’re barreling toward that exact scenario.

“From the beginning of the campaign, President Trump has been running as the presumptive nominee,” says Jimmy Keady, founder and president of JLK Political Strategies. “In every primary there is always a choice. Nikki Haley has a tough path but voters have that choice. The nomination is getting clearer by the day and Republicans are choosing to go with the person they trust most, and in this case, that is President Trump.”

Around NR:

• NR’s editors say Trump’s reaction to Republican Mazi Pilip’s special-election loss in New York should worry Republicans after the former president decried the Long Islander as a “very foolish woman” who didn’t endorse him and tried to “straddle the fence”: 

Unlike Trump, Democrats understand that there are races in which their candidates will have to distance themselves from Biden. On the day before the election, Suozzi conceded of Biden, “He’s old, and there’s no question about it.” He also hedged when discussing supporting the president by leaving open the possibility Biden could be replaced as nominee: “If he ends up being the Democratic candidate, I’m likely to support him, yes. We’ve got to see what happens.”

• Retiring Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia will not run for president after all. Audrey Fahlberg has more:

The 76-year-old conservative Democrat’s announcement comes as welcome news to allies of President Joe Biden, who have long fretted that a centrist third-party ticket might hand the election to former President Donald Trump.

• Judson Berger warns of the real danger in Biden “brazening it out”:

So: Should Biden run and win again against his historically unfit likely rival, the greatest risk is not that he dies in office — the succession process is clear, setting aside concerns about Veep Harris’s completing the full Selina Meyer — but that he continues to decline and his staff and cabinet officers don’t tell the truth about it.

• Democrats have a math problem heading into November, writes Noah Rothman, who nonetheless is inclined to believe Trump would lose a hypothetical general election against Biden:

Despite his self-set reputation as a lunch-pail-toting nine-to-fiver with familial roots set deep in the carbon-rich soil of Scranton, Penn., Joe Biden has presided over the hemorrhaging of his party’s support among non-college-educated voters. The Democratic Party is increasingly dominated by degree-holders, and its officials seem resigned to that evolution continuing in perpetuity. The party is pinning all its electoral hopes on driving up turnout among this relatively affluent, highly educated slice of the electorate. The big problem with that plan is that there just aren’t enough of those voters.

• Trump is leading Biden by nine points among Jewish voters in New York, according to a new poll from Siena College. Philip Klein explains how unusual this is: 

The results are pretty remarkable considering that Jewish voters typically vote overwhelmingly Democratic, particularly in New York, and Trump has not been historically popular among the demographic. The poll does not have enough detail on the group to draw definitive conclusions, but it comes at a time when Jews have witnessed the explosion of antisemitism on the left following the October 7 attacks, and when Biden has been increasingly hostile toward Israel’s efforts to use force to defend itself.

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