(Bloomberg) -- Nikki Haley’s campaign manager dismissed Donald Trump’s recent spate of insults as “temper tantrums” on Saturday, but stopped short of condemning taunts like “birdbrain” or “Nimbra” as racist or sexist.
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“I think looking at some of those comments, and the all-caps, Truth Social temper tantrums, as he does, what he did last night at his rally — that’s exactly why we need a new direction in this country,” Betsy Ankney said at a luncheon in Manchester, New Hampshire hosted by Bloomberg News. “It kind of proves our point that this is why we need to move on.”
As the rivalry between Trump and his former ambassador to the United Nations heats up, the comments marked the Haley campaign’s most direct response since the former president escalated his attacks on her in recent days. Haley has emerged as the biggest threat to his dominance in the New Hampshire primary, shooting from a distant seventh place to reach second by September. She now trails Trump in New Hampshire by almost 16 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average.
Even as Trump’s attacks have intensified, the Haley campaign has tried to maintain a disciplined approach to her message. Ankney declined to characterize Trump’s comments as racist, saying the campaign was focused on household issues such as education and the cost of gas and groceries.
A new front opened at a campaign rally Friday, when Trump claimed that Haley — then a private citizen — was in charge of security during the insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, confusing her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Haley, 52, said in New Hampshire that those comments call into question whether the 77-year-old former president is mentally fit to hold office.
Ankney said that’s not a new position. “She has been making the argument for months — it was in her announcement speech — about how you need a medical acuity test for politicians over the age of 75, how we need a new generational leader,” she said.
Read more: Trump Suggests Haley Out of Running for VP Pick as Insults Fly
Haley has struggled to reconcile with issues of race in a campaign against Trump, who has courted support among White nationalists. She declined to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War in a campaign stop in New Hampshire in December, and has maintained that America has “never been a racist country.”
“There’s always a lot of noise. There’s always a lot of drama. There’s always a lot of chaos. And it really proves our point that this is why we need to move forward,” Ankney said. “Voters are not following this as closely as you all are.”
Trump has also resurfaced the false “birther” conspiracy theories that Haley’s Indian-American parentage makes her ineligible to serve as president, and has mocked her birth name of Nimarata by calling her “Nimbra.”
Earlier Saturday, New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Chris Ager said he didn’t see Trump’s comments as racist. “President Trump says a lot of things that no one else can get away with,” he said. “I just see it as Donald Trump using whatever he can to try to diminish his opponents.”
Read more: Haley ‘Absolutely’ Could Win New Hampshire, GOP Chairman Says
Ankney — a low-profile operative who has given few interviews before meeting with reporters Saturday — also let out some annoyance with how the Haley campaign is being covered in the media.
“I would say the biggest frustration is the constant desire to just focus on Trump,” she said. “Think about all of the questions that you asked me here today. Most of them were about Trump. Again, 50% of the voters in Iowa said they want something new. I think that you’ll continue to see that play out. Again, don’t underestimate her.”
--With assistance from Nancy Cook, Margaret Collins and Mario Parker.
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