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Nikki Haley is on a losing streak, but donors still see her as a hedge against Trump

By Alexandra Ulmer and Gram Slattery

(Reuters) - Nikki Haley finished a disappointing third in the Iowa Republican nominating contest and a distant second in New Hampshire, while in Nevada - where she was the only candidate in Tuesday's primary - she finished behind ballots marked "none of these candidates."

And if opinion polls are correct, the 52-year-old former South Carolina governor faces certain defeat to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, 77, in her home state on Feb. 24.

Despite her performance to date and no sign of a clear path to overtaking the former president in the race, some donors are continuing to bankroll her. During a two-day swing through California this week she raked in $1.7 million, according to her campaign.

The financial spigots remain open in part because donors believe Trump's multiple criminal cases could yet end up pushing him out of the race, according to interviews with around a dozen donors, fundraisers and advisers to donors.

"Haley needs to keep accumulating delegates and either persuade primary voters to support her or be there when Trump stumbles," said donor Eric Levine, a New York-based litigator.

Trump faces four pending criminal cases, including two related to his efforts to reverse his 2020 presidential election loss. He could potentially be convicted, or acquitted, before his likely rematch in the November election with Democrat Joe Biden. Trump says he is the victim of persecution, but the Justice Department says it acts without political bias.

Haley's campaign says it raised $16.5 million in January alone, its strongest month to date. Reuters was not immediately able to verify those numbers. The campaign had just under $15 million in the bank at the end of last year, federal disclosures show.

North Carolina retail businessman Art Pope, who most recently gave money toward Haley's campaign last week, said the idea of the former U.N. ambassador being an "insurance policy" in case Trump is convicted comes up in conversations with other donors.

That rationale also came up repeatedly in Reuters interviews with donors and fundraisers, who cited Trump's age as another risk. Some said they still saw a path through the remaining primary states for Haley to win the nomination.

"The polls are not favorable but they don't decide," Pope said.

To be sure, some Haley donors have already jumped ship and are being courted by Trump.

In a statement to Reuters, Haley's campaign said Trump would lose against Biden in a general election and that the United States needed a "new generational leader."

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said Haley was a "useful idiot" for Democrats and "Never Trumpers."

"She would rather see the world burn than to unify the party," Cheung said.

'HALEY REPUBLICANS'

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper held one of the fundraisers for Haley at his home on Tuesday. About a third of those present, Draper estimated, were Democrats.

"The Democrats are now called 'Haley Republicans,'" Draper said.

Trump and his allies have blasted Haley, a relative moderate in the current Republican Party, for her support from centrist Republicans repelled by Trump, as well as Democrats keen for her to continue distracting the Republican frontrunner.

Since losing the New Hampshire primary to Trump on Jan. 23, Haley has ramped up her attacks on him, calling into question his cognitive abilities and describing him as "unhinged."

In addition to making comments about Haley seen as sexist and racist, Trump has threatened to banish her donors from his orbit. But that backfired when Haley launched a fundraising drive off the warning.

One recent Haley donor is Adam Kinzinger, a Trump critic and former U.S. representative.

Kinzinger said on social media platform X that Trump's warning to Haley's donors showed her getting under Trump's skin.

"The more we get in his head ... the more he cracks," Kinzinger said.

While Haley appears to have the will and the funds to keep going, her path may start to fray after her expected defeats.

If that happens, at some point "donors will reconsider," said Pope.

For now, though, Haley appears to be all in.

"This is going to hurt, and it's going to leave some bruises," Haley said at campaign event in Los Angeles on Wednesday. "I don't mind taking that, if you'll go right along with me."

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Gram Slattery; additional reporting by Luc Cohen; editing by Ross Colvin and Jonathan Oatis)