CONWAY, S.C. -- With two weeks to go before the South Carolina Republican primary, Nikki Haley is trying to challenge Donald Trump on her home turf while the former president tries to quash his last major rival's narrow path to the nomination.
Trump, turning his campaign focus to the Southern state days after an easy victory in Nevada, revved up a huge crowd of supporters at a Saturday afternoon rally in Conway, near Myrtle Beach, by touting his time in office, repeating his false claims that the 2020 election he lost was rigged, maligning a news media he sees as biased against him and lobbing attacks on Haley and President Joe Biden.
In his rally speech, Trump insulted Haley by using his derisive nickname for her, "Birdbrain," and lavished praise on South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who endorsed him early. Trump claimed that he selected Haley to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations in 2017 and represent America on the world stage only because he was motivated to make McMaster -- her second-in-command -- the governor of South Carolina.
"She did a job. She was fine. She was OK. But I didn't put her there because I wanted her there at the United Nations," he said. "I wanted to take your lieutenant governor, who is right here, and make him governor."
"I wanted him because I felt he deserved it," Trump added.
Trump, who has long been the front-runner in the GOP presidential race, won three states in a row and is looking to use South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary to close out Haley's chances and turn his focus fully on an expected rematch with Biden in the general election.
Haley skipped the Nevada caucuses, condemning the contest as rigged for Trump, and has instead focused on South Carolina, kicking off a two-week bus tour across the state where she served as governor from 2011 to 2017.
Speaking to a couple of hundred people gathered outside a historic opera house in Newberry, Haley on Saturday portrayed Trump as an erratic and self-absorbed figure not focused on the American people.
She pointed to the way he flexed his influence over the Republican Party this past week, successfully pressuring GOP lawmakers in Washington to reject a bipartisan border security deal, and publicly pressed Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to consider leaving her job.
"What is happening?" Haley said. "On that day of all those losses, he had his fingerprints all over it," she added.
Haley reprised her questions of Trump's mental fitness, an attack she has sharpened since a Jan. 19 speech in which he repeatedly confused her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Haley, 52, has called throughout her campaign for mental competency tests for politicians, a way to contrast herself with 77-year-old Trump and 81-year-old Biden.
"Why do we have to have someone in their 80s run for office?" she asked. "Why can't they let go of their power?"
A person in the crowd shouted out: "Because they're grumpy old men!"
"They are grumpy old men," Haley said.
Bob Pollard, a retired firefighter, said he cannot support Trump because "he's a maniac," adding that Trump's campaign, in which he speaks frequently of "retribution" and his personal grievances, has "turned into a personal vendetta."
Trump, in his remarks and a social media post on Saturday, criticized foreign aid and a plan in Congress to provide nearly $100 billion in aid for Ukraine and Israel. He also repeated his praise for foreign strongmen, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin "very smart, very sharp," describing Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as "one of the toughest guys," and saying Chinese President Xi Jinping is smart because he "controls 1.4 billion people with an iron fist."
Trump also ramped up his attacks on the media, maligning the press at least half a dozen times, with the crowd registering their agreement with boos.