Nothing seems to be stopping Donald Trump as he surges toward his third consecutive Republican nomination.
The ex-president on Tuesday became the first modern-era non-incumbent Republican to win the first two presidential nominating contests, adding the New Hampshire primary to his Iowa caucuses landslide from last week, and reached the brink of a rematch with President Joe Biden.
Trump has all but cleared the GOP field at an astonishing clip. Despite a crush of criminal liability and the memory of his assault on democracy on January 6, 2021, he is consolidating his party around him at a rate unprecedented in modern primary elections.
And yet, Trump spent Tuesday night seething, sources told CNN's Kaitlan Collins, because his sole remaining GOP rival, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, isn't dropping out. Despite failing to land a win against the ex-president in the state perhaps most suited to her candidacy, she insisted she would go on, resisting heavy pressure from Trump's camp to bow out and promising to engage in what looks like an uphill battle in her home state - which holds the next big primary next month. Trump criticized Haley publicly and privately and urged his political aides to up their attacks on her, Collins reported.
While his reaction to his New Hampshire win was far less jubilant than his Iowa triumph, the twin victories represent a stunning act of political survival. Three years ago, Trump left Washington stung by his second impeachment after trying to overturn the result of an election that he lost. There's also a possibility he could be a convicted felon by November's election given that he's facing 91 criminal charges and more trials - civil and criminal - than can be counted on one hand. His wins underscore his success in leveraging his legal problems to paint a narrative of political persecution that's bolted his political base ever closer to his side. And exit polls on Tuesday showing that roughly 8 in 10 of Trump's voters denied the legitimacy of Joe Biden's election in in 2020 highlight how Trump has successfully used election denialism as an engine of his political comeback.
The former president is in a unique political position. In some senses, he's effectively an incumbent since he never relinquished his hold on the GOP even after losing - a fate that normally sends ex-presidents into ignominious retirement. But even while in office, Trump never lost sight of his core political formula - his reputation as an insurgent outsider.
So while Haley is trying to portray him - and his stack of endorsements - as a figure of the "establishment," it's a tactic that works more in theory than practice. In fact, Haley, who is pushing hawkish foreign policies and deficit reduction, is trying to revive the establishment policies of the pre-Trump Republican Party. Trump, who is vowing a second term of "retribution," is sending every signal he wants to go back to Washington to tear it all down.
There is also no sign in the first two contests that Republican voters are worried that Trump can't beat Biden, which is the core argument of the Haley campaign and of her erstwhile rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who folded his White House bid after finishing second in Iowa. The former president has probably been helped in this regard by Biden's own low approval ratings and a blizzard of conservative media coverage of the 81-year-old president's age and perceived mental frailty, which may have convinced many voters he'll be a pushover in November.
"We had one hell of a night tonight," Trump said in his victory speech in Nashua at an election night party that saw his supporters in red "Make America Great Again" hats cheering as networks called his win.
But Haley's decision not to pull out of the race irked the former president after he said at his closing rally on Tuesday night that he expected she would be knocked out.
"Ron came in second and he left. She came in third and she's still hanging around," Trump said of DeSantis' and Haley's performances in Iowa. "She had a very bad night."
Trump was joined on stage Tuesday by his other one-time rivals for the nomination, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, whom he described as "the only person more angry than, let's say me, but I don't get too angry, I get even."
The ex-president's victory party also welcomed another guest - disgraced ex-congressman George Santos, who became one of the few people ever expelled from the House of Representatives over ethics allegations.
At her own election night event, Haley congratulated Trump on his win, but said that the race was far from over - even though it's hard to pick a primary state where she might win if she couldn't win New Hampshire.
"In the next two months, millions of voters in over 20 states will have their say. We should honor them and allow them to vote," Haley told her crowd at the election watch party, as several supporters chanted, "Trump is a loser." The former US ambassador to the UN advised her old boss to take a mental competency test and suggested he was afraid to climb on a debate stage alongside her.
Had the former president chosen to be magnanimous, he might have ended the primary race in all but name. But instead, he gave the Haley team a new seam to mine. Her campaign issued a quick response to his speech, which it termed a "furious and rambling rant" against her, asking, "If Trump is in such good shape, why is he so angry?"
His bitter demeanor may have reminded suburban and women voters whom he alienated in past elections why they soured on him. And his outbursts will have delighted Biden's campaign, which declared Trump all but clinched the GOP nomination on Tuesday night and fired up their general election attack machine against him. In another sign of urgency, two of his top White House aides are moving to Wilmington, Delaware, soon to take the reins of his reelection.
Unfortunately for Haley, New Hampshire did not, as she told its voters it would, "correct" the result of last week's Iowa caucuses, where she came a distant third to Trump. Whether she got "smoked" in the Granite State - as her former opponent Chris Christie predicted she would on a hot mic - depends on whose spin you accept.
With 88% of the vote in from the primary, Haley trailed Trump by about 11 points. That's short of the huge win some of the ex-president's supporters had expected but still a handsome victory margin for Trump, even if his problems with suburban voters were reflected in his rival's strong performance in large population areas in southern New Hampshire - a potential alarm bell for his prospects in a general election.
The problem for Haley is that as the race now turns toward her home state, and big southern state primaries on Super Tuesday in March, she'll be up against Trump in his strongholds and her chances to pick off wins and convention delegates seem slim.
Still, her campaign is arguing that every time she takes on Trump she is improving. And her supporters insisted that her difficult road ahead did not mean she should be forced out of the race.
And there's no reason why Haley shouldn't stay in if she has the money. After all, it's a democratic process and voters - not rival candidates - get to decide the result. Trump's rush to declare victory in the primary race may even be a sign of political malpractice since he's only leaving Haley and her supporters more determined not to be pushed out.
"The more she runs, the more support she's getting," said Lisa Kent, a Haley supporter from Connecticut who attended the election watch night party in Concord. "It's like an avalanche."
But unless the former South Carolina governor can pull off a miracle next month in a state where she was elected governor twice - but that is now a Trump bastion - her shaky rationale for continuing her campaign may face a terminal reality.
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