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Nikki Haley tells Pinellas Republicans that they’re better than what Donald Trump is offering

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Nikki Haley says she’s seen what Donald Trump rallies have become of late, and surmised that accepting him as the GOP presidential nominee goes against what the party of Lincoln is all about.

“I’m watching a presidential candidate who at his rally is saying, ‘punch him. He should be taken out on a stretcher. Do it again’,” she said on Saturday night in St. Petersburg. “That’s not us. That’s not Republicans. That’s not Americans. That’s not who we are. We’re better than that.”

Haley is supporting Marco Rubio for president in the Republican presidential race and was the keynote speaker at the Pinellas County Lincoln Day Dinner at the Hilton Carillon in St. Petersburg on Saturday evening.

In her 18-minute address, she briefly talked about herself, advocated for why she is so enthusiastic about Rubio, and recounted how her state kept it together after two racially explosive acts occurred last year. One was the shooting and killing of an unarmed black motorist named Walter Scott by a white police officer. The other was the mass shooting by 21-year-old white man, who killed nine black people at a historic black church.

“I know what hate can do,” she solemnly intoned. “I know what division can do. But I know what Americans can do. I saw it in South Carolina.”

She said that in the wake of the Walter Scott tragedy, the state’s GOP-led legislature ultimately passed the first bill in the country mandating body cameras for police officers. They also voted to remove the divisive Confederate flag from their state house grounds.

Haley is a trailblazer of sorts. With her election in 2010, she became South Carolina’s first Indian-American and first female governor ever in the Palmetto State. Re-elected in 2014, she’s considered one of the party’s rising stars, and was chosen to give the rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January.

She made more news that night by criticizing Trump, as well as the expected attack on President Obama. A day after a Trump rally was canceled in Chicago after protesters clashed, Haley said Pinellas Republicans need to reject what the New York City business mogul is offering.

“I know Donald Trump,” she said. “I’ve met him. He’s been a supporter of mine. But his judgment is off. You don’t divide people against each other in this country. You don’t divide by race, or religion or anything. We need someone to bring us together. We’ve got terrorists that will divide enough of this world, that we need to be united in this country,” it was only on that last line — a reference to fighting Islamic terror — that the audience verbally responded.

In speaking to Pinellas County Republicans three days before Tuesday’s must-win primary for Rubio, Haley was aiding her candidate’s push to win Tampa Bay. Earlier on Saturday, Rubio appeared in four different cities in the region, including a 9 a.m. appearance in Largo.

Haley said it was time to get real. That if the hundreds in attendance want Donald Trump not to be the nominee in the fall for the GOP, they must vote for Rubio on Tuesday.

“If Donald Trump wins, Hillary Clinton will win in November. That’s a fact,” she said, a remark that appeared to elicit a few jeers.

The audience definitely wasn’t all on board.

And listening to two members of Congress, neither are some elected officials, who may be running on the same ballot as Trump in November.

“We must be united,” declared Pasco/Pinellas Representative Gus Bilirakis. “Nobody is going to pick our nominee. We’re going to pick our nominee.”

“Somebody’s going to win this fair and square,” agreed CD 13 Congressman David Jolly before the dinner kicked off. “And if it’s Donald Trump, then I’ll look at Donald Trump’s platform, and figure out where I’m going personally going forward.”

Haley said after going through the trauma that South Carolinians did in 2015, “I want someone who’s going to bring the best out of everyone.” And she said Rubio was that someone.

“We know that this race is not over until we see the results of Florida and Ohio,” Haley said, before circling back to how South Carolina was able to flourish out of a dark moment. “I know what harshness does. I know what divisive language does. I know what happened when the KKK showed up on our statehouse grounds, and I know totally denied them and told them to get out of my state!”

The election results will be known on Tuesday night.

The evening brought out hundreds of Pinellas County Republicans, including some state lawmakers like Jeff Brandes, Jack Latvala, Chris Sprowls and Chris Latvala.

Earlier in the evening, the party honored former Pinellas County Republican Chairman Jay Beyrouti with their C.W Bill Young Service Award, named after the late congressman who represented Pinellas for more than 42 years until he died in 2013.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at

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