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Updated Feb 16, 2023, 1:25pm EST
politics

Nikki Haley’s pitch: Conservative policies, minus the Trumpy chaos

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The News

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Nikki Haley launched her campaign on Wednesday with a smoothly choreographed rollout that emphasized her electability, her patriotism, and her conservative anti-establishment credentials in equal measure.

“If you’re tired of losing, then put your trust in a new generation,” the former South Carolina governor told a crowd of around 2,000 supporters at Charleston’s Downtown Shed. “We won’t win the fight for the 21st Century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th Century.”

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Shelby and Dave's View

In Haley’s case, the medium was the message. Everything about her first day as a candidate screamed competence, deliberation, and self-discipline. There was a streamlined, traditional campaign video followed by a key endorsement, and then a well-executed announcement event on Wednesday in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina.

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Haley walked onstage to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and walked off to Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” part of a playlist dominated by Golden Age MTV hits from her youth. John Hagee, a pastor and founder of Christians United for Israel, recited the Prayer of St. Francis onstage, which Margaret Thatcher, an icon for female conservatives, delivered after becoming prime minister. Haley, after thanking her endorsers for their remarks, gave a prepared 2,341-word speech and nailed every key phrase.

It all made for a mighty contrast with Trump, who famously resists the exact kind of focus that Haley seems to strive toward. He launched his 2024 presidential campaign back in November at his Mar-a-Lago home, seemingly on a whim, and was quickly sidetracked by drama over his dinner with Ye (formally known as Kanye West) and white supremacist Nick Fuentes as well as questions over his lack of campaign events and rallies.

Supporters had driven and flown in from as far away as Dallas and central Pennsylvania for Haley’s launch, but the location — her home, and the campaign’s new headquarters — was ideal to build a crowd, too. Charleston was one of just two South Carolina counties that rejected Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, in favor of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who Haley supported.

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The former U.N. Ambassador didn’t explicitly distance herself from Trump, thanking him for her 2017 appointment (“people said I didn’t have the experience”). But she soon followed that up with a proposal for “mandatory mental competency tests” for politicians over 75.

That was about Joe Biden, and, not subtly, about Trump. She was young, he wasn’t. He’d “lost the popular vote” in 2016 and 2020, and she wouldn’t.

Dylan Trimble, 19, said he’d driven 11 hours from central Pennsylvania to attend the rally, having been a fan since his parents were involved in the Tea Party movement. Haley, he said, was clearly a more electable candidate than Trump.

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“Since the 2020 election, his behavior has been questionable, to say the least. A lot of people aren’t going to be able to stomach voting for him again,” said Trimble. “Someone like Nikki Haley — it’s not like you have to stomach voting for her, you actually want to.”

Haley said that she did not believe in “identity politics,” but her speech leaned into race and gender, invoking her experience as “a brown girl, growing up in a black-and-white world” and the need to send “a tough-as-nails woman to the White House.” While Haley was vague on what her “new generation” of conservatism meant, she was clearly setting herself up as the one to sell it in diversifying and upwardly mobile parts of America, something Trump struggled to do.

Haley’s strategic launch might not land with conservatives who like Trump for exactly the opposite reason — he’s off the cuff, unscripted, and refuses to acknowledge any boundaries on his behavior. In the past, his campaign has tried to position his more abrasive and erratic behavior as a necessary evil to get the results his voters crave.

But the rollout also reintroduced Haley as an establishment-smashing rebel, an appeal to Republicans who know her better as an occasional Trump critic than a conservative ex-governor. Even the opening prayer reinforced the pitch — John McCain publicly rejected Hagee’s support in 2008 over comments he made suggesting God sent Adolf Hitler to hasten the creation of Israel.

Rep. Ralph Norman, one of the Republicans who refused to support Kevin McCarthy’s bid for House Speaker until he made conservative concessions, called Haley a “kindred spirit” who “would have been right along with me, had she been in Congress.”

Haley hadn’t commented on the speaker fight before, but in Charleston, she told Norman that “you know I would have been right there with you in Congress holding them accountable.”

With dozens of cameras filming and five rows of reporters typing on their laptops, Haley was staking out a popular position among conservatives — one of many. She endorsed nationwide voter ID (“like we did in South Carolina”), called for more “police and border patrol,” and mentioned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example of Biden’s weakness, sidestepping conservative arguments about whether America should keep funding the country’s defense. Like Trump in his November 2022 announcement, Haley made no mention of abortion rights, noteworthy in the first presidential primary since the end of Roe v. Wade.

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Room for Disagreement

One Republican strategist told Semafor that, for all her outward poise, Haley seemed to lack focus with her message, and was simply running through “a laundry list of boilerplate issues that matter to Republicans.” It would “be good for her to find a big idea that fits on a podium placard like ‘MAGA’ or ‘CHANGE,’” the strategist, who is not aligned with a 2024 candidate, wrote.

During an appearance on “Hannity” Wednesday night, Haley notably sidestepped questions about how she would differ from Trump when it came to policy, saying, “I don’t kick sideways.”

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The View From Mar-a-Lago

Trump has already repeatedly grumbled to reporters that Haley got in the race after vowing not to run against him. But his campaign also teed up new attacks in a memo to reporters on Wednesday. The first item: A 2012 New York Times interview in which Haley said “the reason I actually ran for office is because of Hillary Clinton,” citing her success in balancing her career and family commitments.

The Trump campaign is clearly hoping to tie the two high-achieving female politicians together in voters’ minds. Trump’s own recent take on Haley — ”overly ambitious” — should sound familiar to anyone who watched Clinton’s detractors over the last three-plus decades.

— Morgan Chalfant contributed reporting.

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Correction

An earlier version of this story misstated the day of Nikki Haley’s interview with Sean Hannity.

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