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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Mark Niquette and Christian Hall

Nikki Haley wants to convince Republicans she’s the younger leader they need

Nikki Haley is betting with her presidential bid that she’s uniquely suited to solve Republicans’ Donald Trump dilemma, as GOP leaders seek a new standard bearer for the 2024 election.

The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador under Trump is expected to announce her candidacy on Feb. 15, directly challenging the former president’s comeback bid as he continues to draw blame for disappointing GOP midterm results.

Haley’s intention to seek the White House marks a reversal from previous declarations that she wouldn’t run if her former boss were to enter the race. She’s banking on increasing disdain for Trump, 76, within the party and offering her relative youth, at 51, and Indian American heritage as a modern alternative.

“We need to go in a new direction. And can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader,” Haley told Fox News in January.

But Haley brings a fraught record to the race. The daughter of immigrants, she took a bold stance in 2015 when she removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse after a white supremacist murdered Black parishioners during a prayer service at a Charleston church.

She also criticized Trump in the immediate aftermath of his supporters’ deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Though weakened, the former president still has a grip on a significant fraction of the GOP base.

Moreover, she’s said that she’s anti-abortion or “very pro-life.” Republicans’ unpopular stance on the issue after the Supreme Court rolled back federal abortion rights was also among the reasons for the party’s underwhelming midterm showing.

Early polls show her well behind the former president and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to enter the race and at 44 is also positioning himself as a younger alternative to Trump. Haley polled at 4% in a survey released Tuesday by Republican pollster Whit Ayres — equal with former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and behind DeSantis, Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.

On Wednesday, Trump posted a video clip on his Truth Social platform of Haley saying in 2021 that she wouldn’t run in 2024 if Trump did with the comment, “Nikki has to follow her heart, not her honor. She should definitely run!”

Trump is counting on a large field to split the vote of Republicans looking for an alternative, which helped him win the nomination in 2016. Several Republicans are considering a White House bid, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has an event in Charleston scheduled for the day after Haley’s announcement.

Haley was the youngest and first minority female U.S. governor when she was elected in 2010. That experience will allow her to withstand attacks from Trump and compete for GOP voters looking for an alternative to the former president, said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican chairman who is backing Haley.

Dawson said Haley will lean on her record as governor where she aggressively promoted economic development that brought the unemployment rate to a 15-year low during her tenure as well as her foreign policy experience after Trump tapped her in 2016 to serve as ambassador.

“There’s a lane for somebody like Nikki Haley who can take the pounding, who has the experience to not panic, who has a lot of confidence in her ability,” Dawson said.

Trump Ties

It’s unclear how Haley will hold up against Trump, who is a master at belittling rivals to gain advantages, said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

Haley was one of the few top Trump aides to maintain a good relationship with him over time — so much so that he hosted her in the Oval Office for a public farewell when she resigned as ambassador in 2018.

One reason for that support was her stalwart backing of Israel at the U.N. and her willingness to be assertive, even once showing up uninvited at a meeting of foreign ministers at the U.N. to discuss the Iran nuclear accord and taking a spot reserved for a senior adviser to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Haley laid the groundwork for a presidential bid despite comments about not challenging Trump, including by actively campaigning for GOP candidates across the U.S. last year. After disappointing midterm results for Republicans, which included the defeat of many of Trump’s handpicked candidates, Haley said circumstances had changed.

“It is time that we get a Republican in there that can lead and that can win a general election,” she told Fox News host Sean Hannity in January, noting the GOP had lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.

GOP Appeal

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has endorsed Trump, said Haley will have to make a case for herself but has a good story to tell.

“I think she’ll be a very viable candidate,” Graham told Bloomberg News in an interview. “She has the ability to help the Republican Party grow. So I expect her to be very competitive.”

Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, publisher of the conservative website The Bulwark, said Haley performs best among swing voters alienated from the GOP. Longwell, who has worked to defeat Trump and conducts GOP focus groups, said Haley’s name typically comes up when voters are asked who they’d like to see run besides Trump and DeSantis.

“A lot of those folks look at Nikki Haley as somebody they could vote for,” Longwell said. “They know who she is and they’ll say, ‘Nikki Haley, I like her.”’

Haley has attracted some deep-pocketed donors. Her nonprofit, Stand for America, received six-figure donations in 2019 from Home Depot Inc. co-founders Kenneth Langone and Bernard Marcus, hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Cliff Asness and GOP megadonor Miriam Adelson, according to a copy of the group’s 2019 tax return first reported by Politico.

Her leadership PAC raised $17.5 million in the 2022 election cycle, far short of the $180 million that Trump raised over the same period. Haley’s PAC got $5,000 donations from Asness, Adelson, Langone and Singer. Marcus gave $10,000. She raised $8.2 million from small-dollar donors who give less than $200.

Dawson said Haley can stand up to Trump and DeSantis, especially on a debate stage, and no one should underestimate her.

“I’ve won tough primaries and tough general elections,” Haley told a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in November. “I’ve been the underdog every single time. When people underestimate me, it’s always fun. But I’ve never lost an election, and I’m not gonna start now.”


(Bloomberg staff writer Bill Allison contributed to this story.)

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