Nikki Haley's first days in GOP 2024 race preview the Trump balancing act awaiting other contenders
By Eric Bradner, CNN
(CNN) -- Nikki Haley's entrance into the 2024 Republican presidential race is offering the first demonstration of the difficult task awaiting other potential GOP candidates, as she seeks to stand out in what could become a crowded field -- without directly attacking former President Donald Trump or alienating his supporters.
Since announcing her White House bid Tuesday, Haley has focused on her argument for generational change after a 2020 election in which both major-party nominees were in their 70s.
On NBC's "Today Show" on Thursday, Haley called the questions about how she'll differentiate herself from Trump a media creation. "You guys are obsessed with me talking about him," she said of the president who appointed her ambassador to the United Nations.
But that deflection ignored the reality that Trump and Haley are to date the only major candidates to officially enter the 2024 Republican race. And only one can win.
Haley insisted that she is focused on defeating President Joe Biden, rather than engaging with Trump.
"I don't kick sideways, I kick forward. And what I'm telling you is Joe Biden has not led," Haley said.
The questions Haley faces now are a preview of the Trump two-step that awaits every prospective Republican presidential hopeful: How can they prove their own mettle without alienating a base that remains loyal to Trump -- all while under a barrage of attacks from Trump himself?
How Haley navigates that question could provide lessons for other Republicans preparing to launch their own presidential campaigns.
For his part, Trump is showing no restraint in attacking those who could challenge him for the party's 2024 nomination.
On his social media network Truth Social, the former president claimed Thursday morning he had appointed Haley -- then the governor of South Carolina -- as United States ambassador to the United Nations as "a favor to the people I love in South Carolina" because he thought her then-lieutenant governor was better.
"The greatest thing Nikki Haley did for our Country, and the Great State of South Carolina, was accepting the position of United Nations Ambassador so that the incredible then Lieutenant Governor, Henry McMaster, could be Governor of South Carolina, where he has done an absolutely fantastic job," Trump said on Truth Social. (McMaster has endorsed Trump's 2024 campaign.)
He also pointed out Haley's previous pledges not to run for president if Trump was in the race.
"I told Nikki to follow her heart, not her ambition or belief. Who knows, stranger things have happened. She's polling at 1%, not a bad start!!!" he said on Truth Social.
Though Haley's early entrance into the 2024 race has made her a target this week, she isn't the first -- and won't be the last -- Republican forced to address similar questions about Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis -- who Trump has called "Ron DeSanctimonious" -- experienced a preview of the same challenge earlier this month when Trump shared a photo on Truth Social that suggested DeSantis had behaved inappropriately with teenage girls while teaching history in Georgia in his early 20s. Rather than engaging directly with Trump, DeSantis deflected a reporter's question about the attacks.
"I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden," he said. "That's how I spend my time. I don't spend my time trying to smear other Republicans."
Early polls suggest that DeSantis would be Trump's top rival in a hypothetical GOP primary. A new Quinnipiac University poll showed Trump with 42% support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, followed by DeSantis at 36%. The Florida governor is expected to make an announcement about his next steps later this year, after the state legislative session ends.
The challenge posed by Trump's presence could be much more daunting for others who start with much less support -- including Haley, who Quinnipiac found to have the third-most backing at 5%, and former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who were both fourth at 4%. All three were members of Trump's administration, further complicating their efforts to break out in a field that includes the former president.
Other Republicans have similarly avoided direct conflict with Trump. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a sometimes-critic of Trump, appearing on CNN earlier this month as he weighs his own potential run, said he was joking when he called Trump "effing crazy" at a dinner and said he would support Trump if he is the 2024 GOP nominee.
"I don't think it's going to be Donald Trump, but yeah, I'm going to support the Republican nominee, to be sure," Sununu said.
On NBC Thursday morning, Haley was asked about her phone call with Trump ahead of her announcement -- the one in which Trump said on Truth Social he told her to "follow her heart, not her ambition or belief."
"I'm going to keep that phone call personal," Haley said, as she insisted she did not seek Trump's permission to launch a 2024 bid. "I didn't ask -- I told, that I thought that we needed to go in a new direction."
She faced similar questions Wednesday night on Fox News about how she'd differentiate herself from Trump on policy matters -- and deflected with the same assertion she'd use the next morning on NBC.
"What I am saying is I don't kick sideways, I'm kicking forward. Joe Biden is the president. He's the one I'm running against," she said.
Instead of staking out clear differences with Trump, Haley, 51, has focused her argument on generational change.
"It is time for a new generation of leaders. You shouldn't have to be 80 years old to get to Washington," she said on NBC.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN on Wednesday that Haley's argument for generational change will be a popular one among Republicans seeking to topple Trump as the party's leader.
"She's trying to make the argument it's time for a new generation. I think you'll hear that a lot," Graham said. "And I think Trump will have to make the argument that, I'm best able to step into the job, I did it once, I can do it again, I can do the job well."
Former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, once a tea party Republican who has broken with the party over Trump, said on Twitter that Haley's campaign launch is reminiscent of the 2016 GOP primary.
"GOP elites dismissed Trump when he announced in 2015. But GOP voters on my radio show loved him. I thought again about that dichotomy listening to Nikki Haley yesterday," he tweeted Thursday, two days after Haley launched her campaign. "She tried the whole 'morning in America' thing. GOP voters don't want morning in America. They want revenge."
Still, some Republicans -- including those who have embraced Trump's lies about widespread election fraud -- are aligning themselves with Haley.
Defeated New Hampshire Senate nominee Don Bolduc, who was backed by Trump, endorsed Haley and is campaigning with her in the Granite State on Thursday and Friday.
And South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, who has been an ally of Trump, said on Facebook: "There's absolutely NO QUESTION the Republican Party has entered a season of change. 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."
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