The race between former President Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is getting nastier, even as the odds seem overwhelmingly in Trump’s favor.

Trump has recently targeted Haley’s husband, Michael Haley, with remarks seemingly intended to raise innuendoes about the couple’s marriage.

“What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He’s gone!” Trump told a rally at the weekend.

In fact, Michael Haley has been deployed in Africa since June with the South Carolina National Guard.

Nikki Haley has duly hit back at Trump, accusing him of disrespecting veterans and slamming his lack of military service.

In a Fox News appearance, Haley hit Trump for a “disgusting” attack that she said amounted to “mocking all veterans.”

Trump was infamously exempted from military service during the Vietnam War because of purported bone spurs. “The closest he’s come to harm’s way is a golf ball hitting him on a golf cart,” Haley said.

The attacks are notable, given they come shortly before the South Carolina primary, which is set for Feb. 24. The race is effectively a do-or-die moment for Haley in her home state — though officially the candidate has said she is in the race until at least Super Tuesday on March 5.

Veterans are an important part of the GOP electorate in South Carolina, but that has not so far delivered any noticeable electoral dividend for Haley. Trump leads in the state by more than 30 points, according to the polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ. His support is more than double Haley’s.

It’s notable, too, that Trump won the GOP South Carolina primary by an easy margin in 2016, back when some Beltway experts thought it was unlikely he would ever reach the White House — and after he had caused deep controversy by disparaging then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being captured during the Vietnam War. McCain died in 2018.

The ferocity of the attacks between Trump and Haley is striking, in part, because Haley served in the former president’s administration. Earlier in the primary process, she was cautious about turning her fire full-bore on him for fear of alienating his supporters. The only candidate who attacked Trump really forcefully, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), went nowhere in the polls and withdrew from the race shortly before the Iowa caucuses.

Now, however, Haley has nothing to lose — and no other serious rivals to think about.

“This is what happens when you have a one-on-one race, right?,” said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. “There is no longer the distractions of multiple targets in the race, so each of them are seeing each other and seeing the whites of their eyes.”

It would be more normal for a front-runner as dominant as Trump to ignore a rival like Haley, whose chances are shrinking. Trump has won the two major contests so far, in Iowa and New Hampshire, by healthy margins, while the size of his polling lead in South Carolina speaks for itself.

Still, Trump is not the kind of candidate to let convention get in the way of a desire to settle scores.

“At this point in the race, Donald Trump is on cruise control to be the nominee and Nikki Haley is really running a ‘statement candidacy’ on her issues,” said Ryan Williams, a GOP strategist who worked for 2012 GOP nominee and now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah.).

“Under normal circumstances, you’d ignore the ankle-biters, but Donald Trump is not your average front-runner. He attacks everything in his sight, and he is going to go after her with as much vigor as anyone else.”

Even as the race has reached a new, fractious phase, however, Trump’s status as the runaway favorite to become the nominee is having a tangible impact.

That is most obvious on Capitol Hill, where his disapproval led to the collapse of a putative deal on border security recently, despite painstaking work by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to put the proposal together in the first place.

The Senate’s passage of a $95 billion bill funding Ukraine’s war against Russia and also providing $14 billion in military aid for Israel is in grave danger in the House, where Republicans are loath to get crosswise with Trump. The former president has been particularly skeptical of continuing aid for Ukraine at its current rate.

Meanwhile, Trump is also stiffening his grip on the apparatus of the party. On Monday, he endorsed Michael Whatley, whom he called “my friend,” to be the next chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) and pushed his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as co-chair.

Trump also wants one of the most central figures in his reelection campaign, Chris LaCivita, to be the RNC’s new chief operating officer.

The proposals drew fresh fire from Haley. “We don’t have kings in this country,” the former United Nations ambassador said during a Fox News interview Tuesday.

“It’s indicative of what has happened not just to the RNC but to state parties all over the country,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy, a Trump skeptic. “It always happens that a president takes over the RNC but, to a bigger extent than I’ve ever seen, Trump Republicans have taken over state parties.”

Trump is not, officially, the presumptive GOP nominee. Such a status is only officially reached when a candidate has accrued enough delegates to secure the nomination at the party convention.

But, in reality, Trump’s grip on his party is growing tighter every day.

It seems highly unlikely it can be loosened anytime soon, however aggressively Haley attacks him.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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