Donald Trump 2.0: Sound an alarm about Joe Biden and stick to the script

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Haley who?

After Donald Trump routed Nikki Haley in the season's first primary in New Hampshire, he spent his victory speech ridiculing everything from her ethics to her apparel. But after an even bigger victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, he didn't mention her name.

Welcome to the next phase of the presidential race.

Haley insists she's not ready to abandon the GOP field to Trump, and she has the campaign cash necessary to stay in at least through Super Tuesday on March 5. Then, contests in 15 states and one territory will award a third of the delegates to the Republican National Convention in July.

But after a 20-percentage-point thumping in her home state, there is no longer a realistic path for the former South Carolina governor to deny Trump the nomination.

"The primary ends tonight," the Trump campaign declared Saturday in a written statement, "and it is time to turn to the general election so we can defeat Crooked Joe."

It's an approach Trump was embracing. On Saturday, in his victory speech and in earlier remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference in a Washington suburb, he focused his fire on President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.

At the conservative conclave, Trump read prepared remarks mostly word-for-word off a teleprompter, although then he did ramble through some favorite anecdotes and jibes in a speech that stretched for an hour and a half.

"By the way, isn't this better than reading off a frigging teleprompter?" he asked the crowd to cheers.

CPAC attendees are seen near a large mural of former President Donald Trump on the side of a bus while waiting for the start of the first of the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.
CPAC attendees are seen near a large mural of former President Donald Trump on the side of a bus while waiting for the start of the first of the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Maybe so, but that night at a hotel ballroom in Columbia, S.C., he stuck to his notecards in a relatively brief and uncharacteristically disciplined 30-minute victory speech.

"We're going to be up here on Nov. 5, and we're going to look at Joe Biden ... and we're going to say, 'Joe, you're fired,'" Trump declared, reprising his signature send-off on the TV reality show "The Apprentice." "Get out, Joe! You're fired!"

The pair of speeches Saturday signaled a pivot for Trump and provided clues to the strategy he plans to follow in the general election as he makes his third bid for the White House.

One: It's his party. All of it.

"I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now," Trump declared with satisfaction Saturday night.

Though he faced a dozen credible challengers when the 2024 campaign began, Trump has triumphed in the four opening states, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and now South Carolina.

Exit polls in South Carolina showed him winning among both men and women, among every age and income group. Nationwide, he can claim the support of almost every elected Republican who has made an endorsement. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., is the only member of Congress from anywhere who has publicly supported Haley.

In modern times, no contested nomination fight in either party has ever been settled with such dispatch.

That said, the GOP isn't really one happy family, at least not yet.

After all, 4 in 10 of those who showed up to vote in South Carolina cast ballots for his rival. That is "not some tiny group," Haley pointed out in her concession speech. Most of those supporters aren't ready to fall in line behind Trump if and when he is nominated. More than a third of primary voters, 35%, said they would be "dissatisfied" with him at the top of the ticket.

So far, 1 in 5 Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have said they would not vote for Trump in November if he's the nominee − significant erosion in what is expected to be a nail-biter election.

Two: Reach beyond the base.

The solid support of Republicans is enough to win the nomination, but it's not enough to claim the presidency.

That requires support from others, including swing voters such as suburbanites and perhaps some traditional Democrats. The Trump campaign even hopes to peel off some support among Black voters, the most loyal demographic in the Democratic base.

That's one reason he addressed the Black Conservative Federation gala in Columbia on Friday night. He was joined by prominent Black Republicans who are supporting him, including former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

But Trump's offhand comments sparked criticism from Haley, Democrats and others for portraying his indictment on 91 felony charges as one reason Black voters are drawn to him.

"A lot of people said that's why the Black people liked me, because they had been hurt so badly and discriminated against," he said, adding that Black Americans had "embraced" T-shirts that feature his mug shot, taken in Georgia.

Haley said the remarks were "offensive" and Cedric Richmond, co-chair of Biden's reelection campaign, called them "insulting," "moronic" and "just plain racist."

So far, Trump seems to be making little progress among Black voters. In a nationwide USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released last month, Trump had the support of 12% of Black voters, precisely the percentage he received in the 2020 election.

In what some Republicans see as an opening, however, Biden's support was at 63%, down precipitously from 87% in 2020, as 1 in 5 Black voters drifted to third-party candidates.

Three: Portray Biden as the threat.

Biden has depicted Trump as dangerous: A would-be despot who would dismantle the NATO alliance, deny women the right to make fundamental health decisions and imperil democratic institutions.

That's part of an effort to make November not a referendum on Biden's presidency but a choice between him and Trump. "Don't compare me to the Almighty," Biden has repeatedly said, one of his favorite political adages. "Compare me to the alternative."

Trump is making comparisons these days, too.

He tells voters that the southern border was more secure, the economy stronger and crime lower when he was president. (Some of those assertions are questionable. Since Biden became president, the U.S. murder rate has declined and the unemployment rate has hit record lows, although inflation has risen.)

At CPAC, Trump warned suburban women that they could be threatened by "gangs" of undocumented immigrants "invading your territory" if Biden were reelected.

"A vote for Trump is your ticket back to freedom," Trump said, his language dark. "It's your passport out of tyranny and it's your only escape from Joe Biden's fast track to hell."

Then he tried to turn Biden's most ominous warning back on him − a sort of "I'm not, you are" taunt.

"The fact is Joe Biden is a threat to democracy," Trump said. "He really is a threat to democracy."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump 2.0: Sound an alarm about Biden and stick to the script