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GOP contest shifts to critical South Carolina primary after Trump notches another dominant win

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Republican presidential contest is shifting to a critical two-week phase ahead of the South Carolina primary, which may prove to be the last chance for Nikki Haley to blunt Donald Trump's march to the nomination.

Enjoying a difficult day for President Joe Biden and fresh off another dominant win in the Nevada caucuses, Trump heads to Pennsylvania on Friday, where he'll address the National Rifle Association. He'll use the forum to highlight his support of gun rights, a major priority for GOP voters. From there, the former president will be in South Carolina this weekend where he and Haley will hold dueling campaign events ahead of the state's Feb. 24 primary.

Trump hopes that a commanding win in the first-in-the-South race will deliver a devastating blow to Haley, who has yet to win a GOP contest. Haley, who was elected South Carolina's governor twice, is betting that a home state advantage will lift her to a strong performance that could keep her in the race through Super Tuesday on March 5, when more than a dozen states will hold contests awarding a massive swath of the delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination.

“We’re leading everybody,” Trump said late Thursday following his Nevada victory. “Is there any way we can call the election for next Tuesday? That’s all I want.”

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Trump said he was surprised Haley was pressing on.

“I don’t know why she continues,” he told reporters, adding: “I don’t really care if she continues. I think it’s bad for the party. I think it’s actually bad for her, too.”

Trump had no competition in Nevada after Haley chose to skip Thursday's caucuses in favor of participating in an earlier primary that offered no delegates. But even without Trump on that ballot, Haley came in a distant second, swamped by GOP voters who picked a “none of these candidates” option.

Beyond Haley's embarrassing Nevada defeat, Trump had an especially fortuitous week.

On Thursday morning, the Supreme Court seemed skeptical of attempts to kick him off the 2024 ballot under the Constitution's Insurrection Clause. Both conservative and liberal justices voiced skepticism during a hearing over Colorado's decision to disqualify Trump from its primary ballot because of his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, which culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Hours later, special counsel Robert Hur released a long-awaited and bitingly critical report that concluded criminal charges against President Joe Biden were not warranted, but said there was evidence Biden willfully retained and shared highly classified information when he was a private citizen, including documents about military and foreign policy in Afghanistan. The report repeatedly pointed to Biden's hazy memory in language that has raised new concerns about the president's competency and age — a top concern for voters.

Trump's speech to the NRA — his eighth, according to the group — comes as the former political juggernaut has played a diminished role this election cycle amid financial troubles, dwindling membership and infighting.

The group's longtime CEO, Wayne LaPierre, resigned last month ahead of a trial in New York over allegations that he treated himself to millions of dollars in private jet flights, yacht trips, African safaris and other extravagant perks at the powerful gun rights organization’s expense.

The New York attorney general sued LaPierre and three co-defendants in 2020, claiming widespread misspending and self-enrichment among certain NRA leaders. The organization filed for bankruptcy and sought to incorporate in Texas instead of New York, but a judge rejected the move.