CNN

By Alayna Treene and Kate Sullivan, CNN

(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump used a rally in South Carolina on Saturday to attack rival Nikki Haley in her home state — and to mock the absence of her husband, who is deployed overseas.

“Where’s her husband? Oh, he’s away. … What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone,” Trump said at his rally in Conway, his first visit to the state this year.

Michael Haley is deployed in Africa with the South Carolina Army National Guard in support of the United States Africa Command, his second active-duty deployment overseas.

Nikki Haley fired back at Trump’s comments later Saturday, saying, “If you mock the service of a combat veteran, you don’t deserve a driver’s license, let alone being president of the United States.”

“Donald, if you have something to say, don’t say it behind my back; get on a debate stage and say it to my face,” she told a crowd in Gilbert, South Carolina.

In a rare move, Michael Haley fired back at the former president, posting a meme on Twitter reading, “The difference between humans and animals? Animals would never allow the dumbest ones to lead the pack,” while mentioning Trump’s account in the caption.

Notably, former first lady Melania Trump has not joined her husband for any public campaign events since his presidential announcement in November 2022 and has not appeared alongside him at any of his court appearances.

Following overwhelming victories in four early presidential nominating contests, Donald Trump has become more emboldened by his staying power as the GOP front-runner. The former president and his campaign are more confident than ever that he will clinch enough delegates by mid-March to declare him the presumptive Republican nominee over former South Carolina Gov. Haley — months before the GOP national convention in July, multiple Trump campaign advisers told CNN.

Trump’s South Carolina stop came on the heels of a busy few days of travel. He appeared in Nevada on Thursday to declare victory in the state’s GOP caucuses before traveling to Pennsylvania, where he addressed a friendly crowd at a National Rifle Association forum Friday.

Thursday saw several positive developments for Trump, including the gift of new campaign fodder against President Joe Biden following the release of a searing special counsel report. While the report didn’t recommend charges against Biden, it included damning language about his mishandling of classified documents and raised concerns about his memory and age.

Also Thursday, the Supreme Court appeared primed to side with Trump and dismiss an attempt in Colorado to declare him an insurrectionist and remove him for the state’s presidential ballot.

Haley has insisted she plans to stay in the race through her home state’s February 24 primary and beyond — buoyed by her enduring fundraising prowess. But Trump and his team view the Palmetto State primary as the place they will deliver the final blow to his last-standing major rival.

That confidence stems in part from Trump’s continued success in internal and public polls, which have consistently shown him with staggering leads over Haley at the national and state levels.

That optimistic view of the remaining 2024 primary contests has led Trump’s campaign to take a less aggressive approach to the South Carolina primary, especially compared with the intensity of their ground game and get-out-the-vote strategies in the earlier nominating states.

And unlike the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, when Trump and his campaign relentlessly crisscrossed the states and poured millions into advertising against his rivals, Trump has had a comparably lighter schedule in South Carolina.

Saturday’s rally in Conway, about 15 miles from Myrtle Beach, was Trump’s first visit to the state in 77 days. He plans to host several more campaign events in the state before the February 24 primary, but his team has had a more laid-back attitude toward the contest as it increasingly focuses its attention on the looming general election rematch with Biden.

Trump’s advisers insist that doesn’t mean he’s taking South Carolina for granted.

“At the end of the day, we can’t take any state for granted. But we see this as a done deal,” a senior Trump adviser told CNN, referring specifically to South Carolina.

The Trump campaign’s ground game efforts in South Carolina this year are also substantially more sophisticated than they were during his initial presidential run in 2016, his advisers say, thanks in large part to the team they’ve built under the leadership of senior adviser Susie Wiles.

The campaign has staff spread out across South Carolina’s 46 counties, dispatched mailers touting Trump’s candidacy and deployed top state lawmakers and surrogates — including Gov. Henry McMaster; US Sen. Tim Scott, a former presidential rival; and several top members of the state’s congressional delegation — to attack Haley in her own backyard.

“Nikki is persona non grata at this point,” Justin Evans, Trump’s director of special projects in South Carolina, told CNN. “Nikki represents the brand of Republicanism that Trump stands against; everything the George Bush-Karl Rove wing of the party is embodied in Nikki Haley and represented by Nikki Haley. This is their last gasp, and they know that if they lose this, they’re going to have almost an impossible task of regaining any kind of foothold not only in this election, but in the party.”

Trump ramped up his attacks against Haley during his Saturday speech, calling her “brain dead” and saying he thought the former South Carolina governor would not pass a cognitive test. His assertion came hours after Haley’s campaign handed out mental competency tests during her campaign stop in Newberry, South Carolina. Haley, 52, has questioned Trump’s mental fitness and has called for mental competency tests for any politician over the age of 75. Trump is 77 and Biden is 81.

“The radical-left Democrats want Nikki Haley because they know that she’s easy to beat,” Trump said Saturday as he flexed his lead in polling.

Those remarks reflect the broader view of Trump’s campaign, which wants him to become the presumptive GOP nominee as soon as possible. According to multiple conversations with Trump’s advisers, they are eager to use the full weight of the GOP infrastructure, including that of the Republican National Committee, to begin pivoting in earnest toward a general election fight against Biden.

Haley, for her part, seems unaffected by the pressure. A day after losing to “none of these candidates” in Nevada’s nonbinding primary Tuesday, she held a fundraiser and a rally in California, one of several Super Tuesday states she plans to compete in next month, urging voters to stick with her.

In both private and public conversations, Haley has insisted she has no plans to drop out of the race anytime soon — and says she’s committed to competing against Trump through Super Tuesday on March 5.

The former South Carolina governor has also sharpened her attacks on Trump in recent weeks, attacking his mental fitness and lumping him together with Biden as one of two “grumpy old men.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Ebony Davis contributed to this report.

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