Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Sunday brushed off Donald Trump calling her “not tough enough” a day ahead of the pivotal Iowa caucuses, claiming the former president and GOP front-runner attacked her because he “knows that he’s in trouble.”
“Everybody that’s ever worked for me or worked with me, no one ever questions my toughness,” Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “He’s saying this because now he knows he’s in trouble. Now he knows this is becoming a two-person race. So I know that he knows the truth. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, told Bash she found the comments “comical because when I was at the UN, he always used to tell people, ‘don’t mess with her. She’s tough.’”
Recent polls have shown Haley gaining momentum in the GOP primary race, which has led Trump – who maintains a commanding lead in Iowa and national polls – to shift his attacks from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to the former South Carolina governor.
At a Sunday rally in Iowa, Trump told his supporters, “Nikki did a good job, she was okay, but she’s not right to be president. I know her very well, the wrong thought process, the wrong policy.”
“And honestly she’s not tough enough. She’s not tough enough. These are tough people we’re dealing with,” Trump added, describing authoritarian leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping as being “very tough.”
The final Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll released Saturday night found 48% of likely caucusgoers say Trump would be their first choice, 20% name Haley, and 16% DeSantis, with the rest of the field below 10%. Haley’s best shot at taking on the former president, however, may be in New Hampshire. A recent CNN poll found her knocking Trump’s lead in next week’s Granite State’s primary to single digits.
Trump on Sunday picked up an endorsement from his once-rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Notably, Haley endorsed Rubio ahead of the South Carolina primary in 2016, which Trump won handily.
Asked whether Rubio endorsing Trump was disappointing, Haley said, “I don’t care as much about elected officials endorsing as much as I care about the voters’ endorsements.”
She added, “I want to win the people’s vote because at the end of the day, they’re the ones that I’m going to be serving, they’re the ones I’m going to be working for, they’re the ones I’m going to be fighting for. As long as I get theirs, I don’t care about the rest.”
Haley picked up an endorsement of her own earlier Sunday – from former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Asked if she welcomed his backing, she said, “Look, if anybody wants to, we’ll take it, but it’s not something I seek, it’s not something I fight for.”
CNN’s Alayna Treene, Kate Sullivan and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.
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