Nikki Haley supporters don't think she has a shot at GOP nomination. And they don't care

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley holds rally in Portland
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By Gram Slattery

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Nikki Haley is drawing the biggest crowds of her presidential campaign. She just scored the endorsements of two U.S. senators. And she is turning in confident performances to crowds that are more raucous than ever - even as almost no one in attendance thinks she will win.

"I just want to say that I did something," said Alyson Emanuel, an attendee at a Haley event in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday.

Asked if the former South Carolina governor had a shot at the Republican presidential nomination, Emanuel was blunt: "No. And you know what? I don't care."

Such is the latest, and perhaps the last, phase of Haley's presidential bid. Whereas supporters and people close to Haley saw a narrow path for her to edge out former President Donald Trump just weeks ago, now they have no illusions.

In interviews with 13 voters at Haley rallies in Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., in the past four days, 11 said they considered Trump's primary victory a sure thing, or close to it. But they came out anyway, they said, to register their discontent with the former president or to demonstrate support for the policy ideas that were popular among Republicans before Trump came onto the scene.

These voters, deeply disaffected by Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden, will be a crucial constituency heading into a likely November general election rematch. Some Haley supporters are hoping that this run sets her up for another shot in 2028 or that she may benefit if Trump finds himself sidelined due to health-related or legal problems, although Haley has consistently played down any such motivation.

As she crisscrosses the country in the lead-up to March 5's "Super Tuesday," when 15 states and one territory will host their nominating contests, Haley has managed to cajole cheers, chants and shouts of support from overflow crowds. At the Raleigh event, over 1,000 people showed up to see her speak at a train station, many standing on benches to see her.

After the event, Haley remained on scene to shake hands and take selfies until the crowd dissipated.

'FLUSH FUND'

At a Friday event in Washington, D.C., she criticized Trump for spending campaign funds on legal fees. She said the Republican National Committee would be his legal "flush fund," before correcting herself, saying it would be his "slush fund."

"You were right the first time!" one attendee shouted out, prompting laughs and applause.

"FLUSH FUND!" another attendee yelled.

It's a far cry from some other campaigns on their last legs, which have taken on a morose or tired air. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, for instance, infamously asked a small crowd in New Hampshire to clap for him weeks before dropping out of the 2016 primary, which Trump won.

"I think they're sort of happy warriors," said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist from South Carolina and a vocal Trump critic.

"I don't know that it's her intent. But she's giving a voice to people who do not want Trump," Felkel said.

Among those people is John Wright, 60, an airline pilot and self-described "Reagan Republican" at the Haley event in northern Virginia on Thursday.

He described Haley as a guardian of a brand of Republican politics that was about to be destroyed, even as he was gaming out what would happen after her loss. Trump, he said, disrespected veterans, damaged America's standing in the world and has an abrasive "persona."

All the same, Trump is clearly tightening his hold on the party, a point reinforced last week by U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell's decision to step down from his leadership role later this year.

"This party is completely and 100% run by Trump," Wright said. "It's like a runaway train, and it's going off the rails. I wouldn't be surprised if a whole new party comes out of the ashes."

On Sunday, Haley scored her first primary win, besting Trump in D.C., where Republicans have long been cool on the former president. Polls show it will be hard to replicate that performance elsewhere.

Still, the campaign celebrated her victory, pointing out it was the first-ever win by a woman in a Republican presidential nominating contest.

"Nikki is fighting for the future of the Republican Party and long-standing conservative principles like fiscal discipline and a strong national security," said campaign spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas.

"She's fighting for the 40% of Republican primary voters who want to make America normal again."

'RUNNING THROUGH THE TAPE'

Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has declined to say if she will stay in the race past Super Tuesday. When pressed by journalists on Saturday, she responded: "We're running through the tape."

In her stump speech, Haley acknowledges questions about why she is staying in despite Trump's massive lead. But she avoids explicitly telling supporters that she is in the race for the long haul.

"You know, all the media is losing their minds, like, 'Why does she keep fighting?" the former South Carolina governor told the crowd in Raleigh on Saturday. "The reason I'm doing this is because of my kids. It's because of your kids and our grandkids"

Her rhetoric is a far cry from the lead-up to the South Carolina primary on Feb. 24. Days before that contest, which she lost by 20 percentage points, she convened a press conference to declare that she would continue in the race no matter the results.

"We would love for Haley to win the nomination," said Robert Schwartz, the co-founder of Primary Pivot, an outside super PAC supporting her bid. "But it's just very unlikely at this point."

Still, if she decides to stay in after Super Tuesday, she will have a dedicated base willing to charge into the breach.

One person who has worked on Haley's campaign described himself as content to "go down with the ship." Another high-ranking official associated with an outside super PAC supporting Haley said the race is now "a crusade as much as a campaign."

Among Haley's willing foot soldiers is Christine Kiley, a Republican art dealer who attended Haley's event in Washington, D.C. She said Haley has no shot at the nomination, but that her chances are irrelevant at this point.

"If she's going to stay in the race," Kiley, 65, said, "then she needs her supporters."

(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Scott Malone)