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Nikki Haley supporters hope she can pull off an upset victory in South Carolina

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

First, we are going to go to South Carolina, where Nikki Haley is hoping to pull off an upset tomorrow in her home state. She's trailing former President Trump in Republican primary polls, but she's been crisscrossing the state on a bus tour the past two weeks, trying to close that gap. Here's Haley in her hometown of Bamberg earlier this month.

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NIKKI HALEY: So it's a great day in South Carolina when I can come home.

CHANG: NPR's Sarah McCammon traveled to Bamberg yesterday to see how people there are feeling about Haley's last pitch to South Carolina voters.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Rusty and Paula's Restaurant on the main drag through Bamberg is often a hub of local activity, hosting events for politicians including hometown girl Nikki Haley.

PAULA DYCHES: Haley's been here seven times. You know, she always found this was her home. You know what I'm saying? It was always nice to see her.

MCCAMMON: Today, it's also a construction zone as the town recovers from a major tornado that tore through last month. Owner Paula Dyches says the place flooded, and the roof blew off.

DYCHES: I had my ceilings done, my roof done. Now we're doing the painting.

MCCAMMON: Even so, Dyches was happy to host a few residents from the area who gathered around a table in the mostly empty restaurant to talk about Haley's last push before the primary. Sharon Carter, who invited the group, is chairwoman of the Bamberg County Republican Party.

SHARON CARTER: Now we're down to two. And even at our last meeting, we had Haley and Trump signs.

MCCAMMON: As chair, Carter can't officially endorse any candidate, but she has some thoughts about this weekend's matchup between the former president and South Carolina's former governor.

CARTER: It is astonishing to me that people are choosing Trump in her hometown because people who do know her know that she's an authentically real person.

MCCAMMON: But some people here still are choosing Trump.

JEROME BOYCE: Trump has a track record. Nikki Haley does not.

MCCAMMON: Across the table from Carter is Jerome Boyce. He lives in Denmark, another small town down the road. Boyce says Haley, who's also a former United Nations ambassador, was a good governor for South Carolina during the six years she led the state, but Boyce disagrees with her on one significant thing.

BOYCE: I didn't like the Confederate flag being moved from the statehouse.

MCCAMMON: Tell me more. Why did that bother you?

BOYCE: It's my heritage, young lady.

MCCAMMON: In 2015, as governor, Haley led South Carolina through the aftermath of the racist mass shooting that left nine people dead at a historically Black church in Charleston. She pushed to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia.

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MCCAMMON: Across town, Randy Maxwell says he saw that moment as an example of Haley's strength in leading the state forward.

RANDY MAXWELL: That's a thing of the past, and it stood for - whether you like to hear it or not, it stood for slavery. It stood for racism. It stood for division in our country. And she did the right thing. She didn't hesitate.

MCCAMMON: He and his wife, Mary Jane Maxwell, live a few blocks from Haley's childhood home, and they're enthusiastically supporting her in the primary. Mary Jane remembers Haley as a child.

MARY JANE MAXWELL: She was always a beautiful little girl. I mean, always well mannered, well thought of, you know? And of course, she grown into this amazing young lady and done wonders for the state of South Carolina, I think.

MCCAMMON: As we're sitting outside on a sunny afternoon, the couple's young granddaughter interrupts, and Mary Jane gently reminds her of her manners.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi.

M J MAXWELL: Say excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Excuse me, can I please get your phone?

M J MAXWELL: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: Randy and Mary Jane say their grandchildren are one of the reasons they don't want Trump as president again.

M J MAXWELL: He did some good things for America, but he is just such a bully, and, well, he does not have any characteristics that we want any of our grandchildren to have.

MCCAMMON: Mary Jane says she has supported Trump in the past, but she doesn't think she could vote for him again. Randy says he's never voted for Trump and never will, but he admits Haley is staring down a likely defeat here at home in South Carolina.

R MAXWELL: It will not look good for her. It will not look good for any candidate if you don't win your home state. Trump just has so much base that they're not going to change.

MCCAMMON: Facing another Trump-Biden matchup, both say they'd probably write Haley in. Stephanie Crosby-Lee grew up in Bamberg and was stopping by a local lunch spot on Thursday with her mother, who still lives nearby. She says she wishes Haley, with her high profile, could do more for the town's struggling economy, but she's glad to see Haley in the race even though she herself is a Democrat and supports President Biden.

STEPHANIE CROSBY-LEE: I really appreciate her because she's a female, and she's standing up for females.

MCCAMMON: Crosby-Lee sees value in Haley continuing her campaign even if she can't ultimately beat Trump.

CROSBY-LEE: One thing I do know, she giving him a run for his money.

MCCAMMON: Haley is poised to keep raising and spending money of her own. Her campaign has announced a seven-figure ad buy ahead of Super Tuesday next month, and she's vowed to continue campaigning regardless of what happens in her home state tomorrow.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Bamberg, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.