Nikki Haley kicked off 2024 presidential campaign with calls for a new generation of leadership
By Kate Sullivan, CNN
(CNN) -- Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley argued Wednesday the nation was ready to move past the "division and distractions" that she said marked today's politics and called for a new generation of leadership as she kicked off her 2024 presidential campaign in Charleston.
The former twice-elected governor of South Carolina, who turned 51 last month, launched her 2024 campaign Tuesday in a video and will travel to the early-voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa in the following days. Her announcement could provide a jolt to what has so far been a slow-moving Republican primary campaign season, with many potential candidates hesitant to be the first to follow former President Donald Trump into the race. Trump launched his third bid for the White House in November.
Haley on Wednesday touted her record in government and leaned heavily into her foreign policy experience as she sought to portray herself as the kind of leader who could strengthen a nation that she argued was "on a path of doubt, division, and self destruction" and "a path of fading patriotism and weakening power."
"I stand before you as the daughter of immigrants, as a proud wife of a combat veteran and as the mom of two amazing children. I've served as governor of the great state of South Carolina and as America's ambassador to the United Nations. And above all else, I'm a grateful American citizen who knows our best days are yet to come, if we unite and fight to save our country. I have devoted my life to this fight. And I'm just getting started. For a strong America, for a proud America, I am running for President of the United States of America," Haley said.
If successful in the primary, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, would be the first woman and the first Asian American nominated by the Republican Party for president. Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa in Bamberg, South Carolina. A former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners, she was first elected to the South Carolina House in 2004. Six years later, she became the first woman elected as governor of the state and was the youngest governor in the nation when she took office in 2011. She resigned in the middle of her second term to become Trump's ambassador to the United Nations -- a role she served in until the end of 2018.
"I have always had a deep belief in America. But I know America is better than all of the division and distractions that we have today. And I'm confident that the American people agree. We're ready. Ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past. And we are more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future," Haley said on Wednesday.
Haley raised Trump in her speech Wednesday in the context of having worked with him during the Trump administration, but she did not criticize the former president who is her only announced rival for the Republican nomination so far. She instead focused her criticism on President Joe Biden over his handling of the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, his foreign policy toward China, Russia and North Korea and his economic policies. She said it was "unthinkable that Americans would look at the sky and see a Chinese spy balloon looking back at us," in reference to the Chinese surveillance balloon the US recently shot out of the sky.
Though she stayed away from overt criticisms of Trump, Haley did call for a "mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old," which would include both Biden, 80, and Trump, 76.
Haley called for term limits for members of Congress, strengthening border security, increasing domestic oil and gas production, condemned bailouts for big businesses and said under her leadership, "Communist China will end up on the ash heap of history."
"It will require doing some things we've never done -- like sending a tough as nails woman to the White House," Haley said. She later added, "May the best woman win."
"My purpose is to save our country from the downward spiral of socialism and defeatism. I aim to move America upward, toward freedom and strength," Haley said as she pitched her vision of America's future.
"Strong and proud, not weak and woke, that's the America I see," Haley said.
GOP Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who has been an ally of Trump, endorsed Haley for president in 2024 on Wednesday and said Republicans were looking for "new leadership with a new vision at the top of the ticket."
Norman praised Trump in the past, arguing in 2016 Trump was "exactly who the Republican Party needed" and that the country was "better off now for what President Trump accomplished." But Norman, who served in the South Carolina statehouse with Haley, argued it was time for a new chapter in the GOP.
"We're at a pivotal point, and most of the Republicans I know are now looking for new leadership with a new vision at the top of the ticket. There's also no question Nikki Haley has the right leadership qualities and vision to move our country forward," Norman said.
Cindy Warmbier, whose son Otto died days after he was released from North Korean prison in 2017, spoke in support of Haley at her campaign launch.
"I came here to tell you how Nikki Haley changed my life. To tell you that Nikki was a glimmer of light in the darkest period of my life. To tell you why America would be lucky to have Nikki Haley in the White House," Warmbier said
Several people who have known Haley for decades describe her as ambitious, disciplined, extremely competitive and not afraid of making enemies. They point to her swift decision as governor to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the Statehouse in 2015 after nine people were fatally shot at a historically Black church in Charleston as an example of her bold leadership style and ability to take decisive action.
"She's a hard charger," said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a longtime friend and ally who started out in the state legislature with Haley nearly 20 years ago. "She's a pit bull when she gets something on her mind."
Supporters hope Haley will gain traction among Republican voters who like Trump's conservative policies but are disenchanted with what they see as his erratic behavior and political bomb-throwing. Haley is more polished and focused, her backers argue, which could make her a more effective champion for conservative priorities.
"Her strength is that she can lay claim to being associated with the policies that people like about the Trump administration, but she's not Donald Trump," said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina.
Haley will likely face stiff competition in this lane from other potential GOP candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who are all said to be weighing 2024 runs and could also appeal to conservative Republicans looking to turn the page from Trump. Some Republican strategists say a big Republican primary field would be advantageous to Trump, who still enjoys significant support among the party base, and could splinter the vote, allowing the former president to walk away with the nomination.
In South Carolina, many of those base supporters of the former president, including June Avinger, the head of the Horry County Republican Women's Club, remain firmly in his corner and unlikely to switch to Haley.
"If Trump wasn't running, maybe I would support her. But not against Trump," said Avinger, who wore a shirt with "ULTRA MAGA" stamped on it in glittery red and blue letters to attend a Trump campaign event in South Carolina last month. Trump won the South Carolina primary by 10 points in 2016, which helped propel him to the nomination amid a crowded Republican field.
In the Trump administration, Haley seemed to carry out a balancing act of allying herself with Trump while also distancing herself enough to appeal to his more moderate Republican critics. She left her post in the administration on good terms with Trump -- a rare feat -- but then publicly criticized him for his involvement in stoking the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. She told Politico at the time she didn't think Trump had a future in the GOP, but then months later said she wouldn't challenge Trump for the nomination if he ran for president in 2024. Haley later walked that sentiment back as she called for a new generation of leadership.
Following Haley's announcement, Trump said he told Haley "she should follow her heart and do what she wants to do. I wish her luck!"
While Trump said publicly Tuesday that he wished Haley luck, he has privately expressed annoyance that the woman he once tapped to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations would challenge him. But Trump has remained the most anxious about another challenger: DeSantis. In recent weeks, Trump has asked multiple advisers about creating a new disparaging nickname for his potential rival, privately suggesting that he target DeSantis's weight instead of referring to him as "Ron Desanctimonious."
Asked how Haley would likely respond to any attacks from Trump or other potential Republican rivals, Ballentine said, "In the South, we say, 'Bless his heart' or 'Bless her heart.' That's what she'll do. She won't blast them on Twitter or be juvenile."
Strategists say Haley is likely to continue highlighting the age gap between her and President Joe Biden, 80, and Trump, 76, particularly as many Democrats privately worry whether Biden is too old to run for reelection. Haley frequently posts on social media about her long-distance runs. Headphones in and slightly out of breath, Haley talks on Instagram about what songs she listened to on the eight- or nine-mile run she just completed. (The former governor is a big fan of legendary rocker Joan Jett.)
"I would think a critical part of her message would be that she's a daughter of immigrants, a woman, young -- all those attributes that compare positively to the old White male concept of the Republican Party," Felkel said. Haley opened her announcement video talking about how she felt "different" growing up in South Carolina.
"The railroad tracks divided the town by race. I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not White. I was different. But my mom would always say your job is not to focus on the differences but the similarities. And my parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America," Haley said.
But others close to Haley say that while she is unmistakably proud of her heritage, she has been reluctant throughout her political career to lean into her identity and background to make political points and wants to focus her presidential message on her record as governor of South Carolina and UN ambassador.
"I think you would see less of the governor leaning on identity politics and more on her record of results," said Rob Godfrey, a top aide to Haley when she was governor.
Ballentine recalled one of her first campaign ads when she was running for governor.
"I was like, 'Nikki, you don't have a minority in there.' And she was like, 'Hello, what am I?' I said, 'People just think you're a tan female.' But she doesn't like to play that card," Ballentine said.
He continued, "I would always tell her in the Statehouse, 'Well, I would play the chick card right now.' She'd say, 'I'm not doing that, Nathan.' She was focused more on the data, the numbers, here's why we need to do it. We don't need to do it because it's helping women, per se, we need to do it because it's the right thing to do."
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