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Nikki Haley waited too late to call Trump out

Trump was at his weakest in 2021. In waiting until now to hit him, Haley undercut her best chance to win the Republican nomination.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has stopped mincing words when it comes to her onetime boss. Former President Donald Trump is “not the same person he was in 2016,” she told “TODAY” co-host Craig Melvin in an interview Tuesday. “He is unhinged; he is more diminished than he was, just like Joe Biden’s more diminished than what he was.”

Those are some real fighting words from Haley, who served in Trump’s Cabinet and is his sole remaining competition for the presidential nomination. The outcome of that race most likely comes down to the GOP primary in Haley’s home state, South Carolina. In the run-up to the Feb. 24 vote, she has been hammering hard at Trump, but it prompts the question: Where was this energy when it really could have made a difference?

Where was this energy when it really could have made a difference?

Trump has so far run away with the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even in the Nevada primary, when Trump wasn’t on the ballot, Haley couldn’t manage a win: “None of these candidates” got more votes that she did. Things aren’t looking much better in South Carolina, where, despite her previous electoral success, Haley is still polling far behind him. But she’s got the support of donors who want to see her prevent a “coronation” of Trump, as she has frequently put it, and she is crisscrossing the Palmetto State to remind voters why she has never lost an election on her home turf.

Since her closer-than-expected finish in Iowa, Haley has been increasingly critical of Trump even as she has dismissed calls that she drop out. She has fumed at Trump’s suggestion that her husband, Michael, who is serving overseas in the National Guard, had left her, and she has suggested military families can’t trust Trump as commander in chief. She has just released a new ad that hits Trump for his support of Russia and claims he’d raise taxes. She has condemned recent comments in which Trump says he’d urge Russia to attack supposedly “delinquent” NATO members.

Haley has also been more willing to call out Trump’s fixation on the 2020 election results. (She has never herself fully disputed those results, but she has hinted at so-called discrepancies that didn’t swing the outcome.) Her ramping up her rhetoric against Trump culminated in her sharp tone with Melvin on Tuesday, when she didn’t hold back her disdain for a potential rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden:

“You’ve got Joe Biden, where the special counsel said he was diminished, and he’s not the Joe Biden he was two years ago,” Haley said. “You’ve got a Donald Trump who’s unhinged, and he’s more unhinged than he ever was. And why are we settling for that when the country is in disarray and the world is on fire?

“We don’t want these two old men running. We want someone who’s going to go and fight for us and work for us, with no drama, no vendettas.”

It’s a line of attack that fits well with Haley’s ongoing balancing act strategy. It allows her to still claim credit for serving in Trump’s administration while arguing against a second term for him. It also manages to do double duty, sharpening a critique that has plagued Biden over the last week in particular after the release of special counsel Robert Hur’s report into his past handling of classified documents.

There were ample opportunities for Haley to preach her message of competence and forward-looking vision without making excuses for Trump.

But the best time to strike against Trump isn’t now, at the last minute. It was in 2021, when he was fresh out of office, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was fresh in the country’s memory, and his future in the party was unclear. However, in January 2021, Haley was unwilling to support Trump’s second impeachment and would only allow that his actions after the 2020 election were “not his finest.” She hedged against angering his supporters later that year, telling The Wall Street Journal: “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”

After jumping into the race last year, she spent months criticizing the former president with kid gloves. While she declined to join former primary candidates in attacking the Justice Department for prosecuting Trump, she also wasn’t willing to hammer him for his multiple criminal indictments. She has said that the “American people won’t vote for a convicted criminal” to underscore her comparative electability, but she stood by her previous pledge to vote for him herself if he’s the nominee. And she has argued that she would pardon Trump if she became president, undercutting her claim that she takes the charges he faces seriously.

There were ample opportunities for Haley to preach her message of competence and forward-looking vision without making excuses for Trump. Instead, she opted to triangulate in hopes of being the last person standing against him in a crowded primary field. She has made it this far and has said she won’t drop out of the race until at least after Super Tuesday in early March. The problem is that if she wanted to chip away at Trump’s massive lead, she should’ve started swinging the ax much, much sooner.