EXETER, N.H. — Nikki Haley asked for one more question, and Ed Privé didn’t have one. The 72-year old Vietnam veteran just wanted to say that he’d supported Donald Trump, but he and the 200 other people at her first town hall needed to get behind Haley.
“I campaigned for Trump, twice, in the freezing rain,” Privé told Semafor, as the candidate posed for selfies and autographed books and lawn signs. “But we need people like her to take us to the future.”
Haley’s campaign trail debut — a launch rally in Charleston, the Exeter event, and a few TV interviews — has only slowly started to reveal her agenda, and where it diverges from Trump’s.
The first voters who saw her in South Carolina and New Hampshire were less interested in that than in her potential appeal to people who’d stopped voting Republican. Retired Gen. Don Bolduc, who’d claimed that the 2020 election was stolen, then lost his 2022 U.S. Senate race by 10 points, hinted at that when he introduced the candidate. Haley, he said, could even appeal to voters who rejected his own campaign.
“We need a new face, and we need new blood,” said David Pendleton, a 56-year old attorney who, like Privé, had supported Trump. “And I think it’s about time we had a woman president.”
Haley’s introductory speaker in Charleston, South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, fit the same mold as Bolduc. He pushed the Trump administration to declare “Marshall Law [sic]” after the 2020 election, in text messages obtained by the Jan. 6th committee. Then he’d moved on, deciding that the GOP needed “new leadership” at the top of its ticket, and that Trump could ride into the sunset.
In Exeter, Haley distinguished herself from Trump on one issue: American military support for Ukraine. “This is about a war on freedom, and it's a war we have to win,” she told one voter. “If Russia takes Ukraine, they’ve said Poland and the Baltics are next, and we're looking at a world war. And if Russia wins, you can bet China's gonna take Taiwan, Iran’s gonna get the bomb.”
It was the only stance Haley took that set her apart from most GOP primary voters; she opposed a “blank check” for war funding, but didn’t say how much was too much. She left no other room between herself and other potential candidates, calling for an end to congressional earmarks and endorsing the “parental rights” bill that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last year, even suggesting that the legislation’s only problem was that it might have been a little meek.
“They're trying to talk about gender in schools,” she said. “There was all this talk about the Florida bill, the ‘don’t say gay’ bill. Basically, what it said was, you shouldn't be able to talk about gender before third grade. I'm sorry, I don't think that goes far enough. When I was in school, you didn't have sex ed until seventh grade.”
Haley's first-week pitch sounds a lot like what Florida Sen. Marco Rubio offered when he ran for president eight years ago — generational change, worries about American military weakness, and a personal story that refuted the liberals who call this a racist country. Each had one standout moment that showcased their appeal outside the conservative base: Negotiating a failed immigration reform deal for Rubio, taking down the Confederate flag for Haley.
This is how Haley had always planned to run for president. In November 2016, according to The Dispatch’s David Drucker, Haley was ready to present herself as a fiscally conservative, patriotic future challenger to Hillary Clinton, when she and most other Republicans expected Trump to lose. An outline of her never-delivered reaction to a Clinton win said that “my fellow Republicans must make changes” and “our message must become more inclusive and inspiring.” Her harshest criticism of Trump in 2016 explicitly tied his rhetoric to the white supremacist Charleston church shooter.
In her first 72 hours on the trail, Haley’s electability stump focused on her biography, a girl whose family immigrated to a deep south town where they “weren’t white enough to be white” or “black enough to be black.” She spent as much time talking about her fight to require South Carolina legislators to take recorded votes on pay raises as she did discussing anything from her two years as U.N. Ambassador. “I’m not a lawyer, I’m an accountant,” she said early into her stump speech, getting some of the evening’s loudest applause.
Haley endorsed Rubio in 2016 ahead of the South Carolina primary, but he ultimately faltered after he was defined as a lightweight who’d say anything to win. That already appears the most obvious play to run against Haley.
Her inconsistent answers to Trump questions, from whether she’d ever run against him to whether he was even fit for office, have so far defined the coverage of her decision to get in. Trump has helped with that, and keeps taking opportunities to mock Haley or call her disloyal. He’s labeled her “overly ambitious” and his campaign has highlighted a 2012 interview in which she said she was inspired to run for office by Hillary Clinton, a high-achieving female politician who Republicans spent decades portraying as a calculating try-hard.
Haley has opted not to respond to these types of attacks, saying she won’t kick “sideways” in the primary. Instead, she is hoping Republicans will be unsure enough about MAGA’s winning potential after the midterms to notice there’s a “badass woman” — her words — who might make conservative policies sound considerably less scary to moderate women. She has notably not mentioned abortion in her speeches, despite a reliable anti-abortion record. Asked by NBC News if she’d favor any federal limits, she non-answered that “we should at least decide when is it OK.” (She has not commented on a bill moving through South Carolina’s legislature that would ban abortion from the moment of conception, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.)
Voters clearly understood the intended message in Exeter and in Charleston, two events where early-state primary voters mingled with the typical out-of-state political tourists from who wanted to be inspired. Some were already locked in for Haley. None that I talked to thought Trump should run again.
But some were waiting to hear from candidates who could match Haley on her biggest advantage over Trump and President Joe Biden: Youth. Right now, Haley is the only presidential candidate born after the 1940s. Every other Republican looking at the race was younger than that, and many in Exeter said they were waiting to see whether DeSantis, born in 1978, would declare his candidacy.
Room for Disagreement
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan was unimpressed by Haley’s launch, writing on Friday that she was “communicating about the need to communicate” and coming off as “phony” so far. “Tough people don’t go on about it; they just smile and crush you like a bug.”