Updated February 24, 2024 at 8:29 PM ET

Nikki Haley is struggling to find widespread support in her home state ahead of the Republican primary on Feb. 24.

But in her hometown of Bamberg, South Carolina, they're a little more enthusiastic.

"She always found this was her home," said Paula Dyches, owner of Rusty & Paula's Restaurant, on the main drag through Bamberg.

The diner is often a hub for local activity, hosting events for politicians including Haley in the past. Today though, it's a construction zone, as the town recovers from a major tornado that tore through in January.

Dyches says the restaurant flooded and the roof blew off. But she was happy to host a few residents from the area, who gathered around a table to talk about Haley's last push before the primary.

Sharon Carter, who invited the group, is chairwoman of the Bamberg County Republican Party. As such, she can't officially endorse any candidate in the state's primary on Saturday.

But she has some thoughts about this weekend's matchup between the former President and South Carolina's former governor:

"It is astonishing to me that people are choosing Trump in her hometown," Carter said. "Because people who do know her know that she's an authentically real person."

Jerome Boyce, who lives in the nearby town of Denmark, is among those local residents backing Trump.

"Trump has got it. Trump has a track record. Nikki Haley does not," Boyce said, sitting across the table from Carter.

Boyce says Haley - who's also a former ambassador to the United Nations - was a good governor for South Carolina during the six years she led the state.

But Boyce opposed her work to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, in the aftermath of the racist shooting that left nine people dead at a historically Black church in Charleston.

"It's my heritage," Boyce explained. "It's Southern."

Across town, Randy Maxwell saw that moment as an example of Haley's strength in leadership.

"I'm as Southern as you get," he said. "But that's a thing of the past. And it stood for, whether you like to hear it or not, it stood for slavery. It stood for racism. It stood for division in our country."

Of Haley, he said, "she did the right thing. She didn't hesitate."

Just a small town girl

He and his wife, Mary Jane Maxwell, live just a few blocks from Haley's childhood home. They're enthusiastically supporting her in the primary.

Mary Jane remembers Haley as a "well-mannered" child who became an "amazing young lady" who's made her home state proud. She contrasts Haley's temperament with Trump's.

"He did some good things for America, but he is just such a bully," she says. "And well, he does not have any characteristics that we want any of our grandchildren to have."

Mary Jane Maxwell says she has supported Trump in the past, but she doesn't think she could vote for him again. Randy Maxwell says he's never voted for Trump and never will.

But he admits that Haley is staring down a likely defeat here at home in South Carolina.

"It will not look good for her," he says. "It will not look good for any candidate if you don't win your home state. Trump just has so much base that they're not going to change."

Facing another Trump-Biden matchup, the Maxwells say they'd probably write Haley in.

Bamberg's mayor, Nancy Foster, says there's excitement about Haley's campaign here, even though the town leans Democratic.

"It puts Bamberg on the map, so we're excited for her and we hope she makes it," Foster said

Stephanie Crosby-Lee grew up in Bamberg. She's glad to see a woman in the race - even though she is a Democrat and supports President Biden.

Crosby-Lee was stopping by a local lunch spot on Thursday with her mother, who still lives nearby. She wishes Haley, with her high profile, would do more for the town's struggling economy. But she sees value in Haley continuing her campaign, even if she can't ultimately beat Trump.

"One thing I do know, she gave him a run for his money," she said.

Haley is poised to keep raising - and spending - money of her own. Her campaign has announced a seven-figure ad buy ahead of Super Tuesday next month, and she's vowed to continue campaigning regardless of what happens in her home state on Saturday.

NPR's Jeongyoon Han contributed reporting to this article.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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