CHARLESTON, S.C. — There were no red caps or QAnon flags in the crowd when Nikki Haley took the stage today at the Charleston Visitor Center.
No vendors had opened their car trunks in the parking lot outside to hawk T-shirts with her face emblazoned on them. There was not a bedazzled jean vest or pink cowgirl hat in sight; no collective “boos” when a perceived political enemy was invoked or rebukes of the horde of reporters who had piled into the back of the pavilion to cover the event.
Instead, Haley’s launch event was a dip back into a political time before Donald Trump, even as she called for a new generation to succeed him. Had a Republican activist emerged from under a rock for the past 10 years, the scene before them would have felt very familiar.
Speaking to a packed covered pavilion, Haley, 51, made her opening case to the Republican electorate to take her bid for the White House seriously. She avoided any direct mention of her former boss, despite painting a picture of a party that should dump “the stale ideas and faded names of the past,” while requiring “mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years.”
“America is not past our prime,” Haley said. “It’s just that our politicians are past theirs.”
The event was not devoid of the pugilism and politics of personality that Trump has come to personify. Haley touted her standoffs with world despots as U.N. ambassador and denounced the social liberal culture that has become a bogeyman on the right.
But, stylistically, it was nothing like the rallies that have dominated the conservative movement since Trump’s rise in 2015, when his freewheeling, populist-tinged monologues to a crowd of costumed, adoring supporters became standard affairs. Indeed, the most attention-grabbing outfit at Haley’s downtown event was on a man wearing khaki pants and a Declaration of Independence golf shirt.
It remains to be seen whether Haley’s offering of pre-Trump style of politics will resonate beyond the bastion of support the former South Carolina governor has in her home state. But the response to her campaign launch will provide an early test as to what — if any — approach may work for a candidate without Trump as their surname.
The former president loomed over the event, and not just as the subtext of Haley’s jabs.
Outside the arena, a white pickup truck drove up and down King Street flying Trump flags from its bed, a reminder that the attempted un-MAGA-fication of the Republican Party has only just begun — and may well stall before the South Carolina primary. When Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a Haley endorser, mentioned Trump by name and suggested that Republicans should thank him for his past leadership as they look toward a new direction, he received tepid applause.
“In 2016, President Trump was exactly what our country and our party needed,” said Norman, who was part of Haley’s 2004 freshman class in the South Carolina statehouse, and endorsed her longshot bid for governor in 2010. The congressman, who had been a vocal supporter of Trump and voted against certifying the 2020 election results, called Haley a “fierce, bold leader who will fight for America.”
It was a sign that the constituency of voters who will be enthusiastic about Haley may be ready to move on from Trump but not repudiate him outright.
Voters like Diane Whitten of Georgia, who came to Haley’s rally with a friend. She said she had long supported the 45th president but believed “one of Trump’s biggest faults is his mouth.” She was interested in hearing from other potential GOP leaders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Like other Republicans expected to enter the field, Haley will have to walk a fine line in how she criticizes the former president and his policies and personality. Trump put Haley on the international stage when he appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 2017, an experience she touts as part of her pitch to voters.
Her announcement speech was a relatively paint-by-numbers expression of conservatism without the ad libs. She highlighted general GOP priorities like strengthening border security and boosting police resources, shrinking the national debt and allowing parents to have school choice. Calling for a “strong and proud, not weak and woke” country, Haley said America could prevent, not start wars, if it invests in a “strong military.”
Left unmentioned were some of the darker chapters of the Trump era — mainly the end of it.
Having once declared Trump toxic because of his handling of the insurrection on Jan. 6, Haley did not talk about or allude to that day in her remarks. While she will undoubtedly need Never Trumpers and traditional Republicans in her camp to remain viable, the calculation on Wednesday seemed to be that she must continue to appeal to the most conservative, anti-establishment wing of the party.
But Haley’s subtle touch didn’t go unnoticed at Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s campaign sent out a news release titled “The Real Nikki Haley” as her event concluded, and allies of the former president bashed Haley for failing to offer policies that clearly differed from Trump’s.
By entering the race early, Haley positioned herself to not only capture much-needed earned media in the coming weeks — she heads to New Hampshire on Thursday, and to Iowa after that — but campaign funds too. Many of her potential GOP opponents are limited in their ability to raise federal funds until they enter the race, though her fellow South Carolina Republican, Sen. Tim Scott, has nearly $22 million on hand that could be transferred to a presidential campaign account.
Diana Stevenson of Columbia, who was already in Charleston for another event, came by Haley’s announcement to cheer on the woman she supported for governor in 2010 — whom she watched on the primary debate stage take on a handful of accomplished male candidates. “And she tore them all up,” Stevenson said. “It was gorgeous to watch. I think she could do it again.”
But Stevenson, like some other Haley fans in attendance on Wednesday, said she was also eager to see which other candidates jumped into the race. In Stevenson’s case, she also remains interested in Scott.
“We have an open slate — even though we have a former president running, we’re going to have a competitive primary field for the first time since 2016,” said Michael Bayham, who traveled to Haley’s announcement from outside New Orleans. He previously served as secretary of the Louisiana Republican Party, and remains active in GOP politics there.
“Nikki’s always presented herself well,” Bayham said, “so I’m curious how she’s going to make her case and create a constituency right now in a field being dominated by Trump and DeSantis.”
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