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Nikki Haley stumps in her small hometown of Bamberg ahead of South Carolina's GOP primary

BAMBERG, S.C. (AP) — Nikki Haley made a campaign stop Tuesday in her hometown of Bamberg, a reliably Democratic rural town that she has described as instrumental to the values that guide her presidential bid, as well as a place where she and her family experienced discrimination.

“It's always a great day in South Carolina when I can come home,” Haley said to a crowd of several dozen gathered at a downtown park.

Haley's hometown was her first stop as she barnstormed across the state in the closing days ahead of South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary, aiming to cut into Donald Trump's popularity in the state. The former president plans to hold a rally Wednesday in North Charleston; Haley, meanwhile, is heading to Texas later this week for fundraising and campaigning in the Super Tuesday state.

Later Tuesday in the coastal town of Bluffton, Haley delivered some of her sharpened critiques of Trump to a crowd of several hundred, enumerating Republicans' losses in elections since Trump won the 2016 contest and asking, “How many more times do we have to lose until we start to say, well, he’s the problem?"

Back in Bamberg, the city's mayor, Nancy Foster, introduced Haley, recalling the former governor's parents as “gracious and accommodating."

“Nikki, we want to extend a warm welcome home,” Foster said, as Haley looked on, recalling a teenage Haley hosting her friends for “ghost stories and card playing at her house, with all the girlfriends over, each one telling their secrets to one another.”

“And you know, you cannot get them to divulge a thing today — believe me, I have tried,” Foster added, with a laugh.

Bamberg County is unlikely to go into either Haley or Trump's win column for the general election. In 2020, area voters backed Joe Biden over Trump, with the Democrat marking nearly 62% of votes cast. The town is in the middle of the 6th Congressional District, represented for decades by the state's sole House Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn.

Earlier this year, the area was the scene of tornadoes that devastated Bamberg's downtown, ripping roofs off buildings and dismantling exterior walls. A month after the storm, some of that destruction was visible behind Haley, who described a text conversation she had with her siblings about the damage to their hometown.

“This little town has been through so much,” Haley said. “But I also know this sweet little town is the town that raised me. This is the town that taught me strength. This is the town that taught me grace.”

In her memoirs and public appearances, Haley has often recounted experiencing discrimination during her childhood: bullying, comments about her ethnicity in school, being disqualified from a beauty pageant for being neither white nor Black. Her father, a professor at a historically Black university, was racially profiled at a farmer’s market.

Haley has said she dealt with racism through bridge-building, writing in her 2012 memoir that “this habit of finding the similarities and avoiding the differences became very natural to me over time."

There were none of those references on Tuesday, as Foster welcomed Haley back home.

“Nikki, Bamberg is so very proud of you, and we wish you well in all your endeavors," Foster said Tuesday. "You have come a long way.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP