Nikki Haley, the first candidate to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, held her first campaign event in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday.
Hundreds of her supporters packed into a covered outdoor venue in central Charleston known as “the Shed”.
It’s usually a site for weddings and live music, but on this day it was decked out in patriotic splendour, lined with red-white-and-blue bunting, an American flag over the stage and twin South Carolina palmetto and crescent moon state banners flanking a giant “Nikki Haley” sign.
A mix of 70s soul and rock classics belted out of loudspeakers before Ms Haley – who was born in in 1972 – made her appearance.
She’s hoping that these supporters, and Republicans across the country, are looking for something different in a candidate – a different direction and a different look. The question is, can she pull it off?
Why she thinks she can win
She’s good at elections
The first thing to know about Nikki Haley is she has never lost a race for office. It’s a remarkable streak that will be put to the test in her quest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Her opponents underestimate her at their own peril, says Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a South Carolina based evangelical Christian group. He saw it firsthand during her first campaign, 19 years ago.
“Few people understand how well Nikki Haley does retail politics,” he said. “Nikki would sit there and hand out doughnuts at the entrance to neighbourhoods. She’d put on a pair of jeans and a pair of boots and go to the biker bar and sit there and talk with them.”
Retail politics will come in handy in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that hold votes before South Carolina on the Republican nomination calendar.
Strong track record
Another of Ms Haley’s strengths is her resume, which at this point in her career is fairly well-rounded.
She gained national prominence in 2015 when she successfully pushed to have the Confederate Flag removed from the state capitol in Columbia after a racially-motivated mass shooting at a black church.
It was a decision that played well with the state’s business leaders, who feared growing boycotts and negative publicity over the flag’s presence.
“It was the right moment. It was the right time,” Mr Wilson said. “She was a strong personality to make those things happen. Nikki Haley worked really hard to get businesses to come to South Carolina, and she bucked up against the good old boy system.”
Although Ms Haley originally supported others in the 2016 Republican race, she backed Mr Trump in the general election – and became his pick for UN ambassador after he won.
The Cabinet-level position allowed Ms Haley to develop her foreign policy credentials. While in the UN she advanced the Trump administration’s pro-Israel stance and was an outspoken critic of Iran.
“China’s dictators want to cover the world in communist tyranny, and we are the only ones who can stop this,” she said at her Charleston rally. “But we won’t win the fight for the 21st Century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th Century.”
Youth and diversity
At 51, she is significantly younger than Mr Trump and her potential Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.
In 2010, she was the youngest governor in the nation as well as the first woman and the first person of colour to lead South Carolina.
In the past, Ms Haley has cited Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008 as inspiring her to get involved in politics.
She’s a different kind of Republican politician at a time when Republicans might be looking for something different.
“I think we need a new candidate, and I think that we need a female in there to tell these men how to do things just the right way,” said Suzie Vahala, a Haley supporter from nearby Mt Pleasant who is attending the campaign. She says that she supported Mr Trump when in past campaigns, but the party needs to move in a different direction in 2024.
“He just needs to be quiet,” she added. “He can’t shut his mouth.”
Not being too Trumpy
Among Ms Haley’s supporters, a change of tenor and direction from Mr Trump could be exactly what they want.
In a recent poll by South Carolina Policy Council, a conservative think tank, half of the respondents who had a “very positive” view of Donald Trump don’t want him to run and don’t think he can win.
“They’re tired of the chaos or they don’t think other people will vote for him,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the council. “So I think there’s an opportunity in South Carolina and other places for Governor Haley.”
Why she might struggle
Enemies on the right
If Ms Haley has the kind of resume suited for presidential success in theory, reality presents a much cloudier picture.
The former ambassador’s hard line on China may be in-step with Republican voters, but her views on Vladimir Putin and Russia have resulted in her being branded a warmonger by some on the right.
“Nikki Haley is a cheerleader for the military industrial complex,” Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative youth group Turning Point USA, said on his radio programme.
Ms Haley also doesn’t lean heavily into culture war issues that are popular among the conservative base, regular topics on right-wing media and frequently talking points for both Mr Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another potential presidential candidate.
Her biggest obstacle, however, may be her former boss – the man who continues to lead many 2024 Republican polls.
Ms Haley has had a complicated relationship with him. She was one of the few early Cabinet-level officials to receive a warm send-off from the president.
She criticised him after he contested the 2020 election results and his supporters attacked the US Capitol, but a few months later, she said she would not oppose him if he ran for president again. Then she began a steady march towards launching her campaign.
In her announcement video and during her 26-minute campaign speech in Charleston, she did not mention the former president by name once – although she occasionally talked around him.
“We’re ready to move past the stale idea and faded names of the past,” she said. “And we are more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future.”
For some she is neither appealing to Mr Trump’s loyal supporters nor sufficiently distancing herself from him to appeal to those who want to move on.
“Nikki Haley has always had a massive Donald Trump problem,” said Miles Taylor, co-founder of the Forward Party and a National Security Council staff member when Ms Haley was in the Trump White House.
“Like a lot of us she privately abhorred the president. But then publicly she was effusively supportive of the president – and it was very clear why. Nikki Haley very much had her own political ambitions.”
While Mr Trump himself has largely held his fire, his political action committee has called her “a career politician whose only fulfilled commitment is to herself”.
According to public opinion polls, Ms Haley faces an uphill climb to win over Republican voters.
While Mr Trump and Florida Governor DeSantis, who has yet to announce a presidential bid, sit at the front of the pack, Ms Haley languishes well behind.
What’s more, unlike many of her likely opponents, Ms Haley doesn’t hold a current political office from which to build name recognition. She also doesn’t have much of a war chest to finance her campaign.
What she does have is her resume, her political acumen and a different kind of background. If she wants to be president in two years, that will have to be enough.
Source – BBC News