CHARLESTON, South Carolina—Nikki Haley entered the presidential race Wednesday with all the glitz and glamor of a formidable frontrunner. Yet even among the supporters at her rally, the underdog Republican is clouded by concerns that she lacks the ability to execute a 2024 campaign worthy of her opening act.
Haley packed an airy, indoor-outdoor venue in charming downtown Charleston with an overflow crowd of roughly 2,000 energetic supporters—encouraging turnout for a late workday morning rally that bled into the early afternoon. The space was adorned with patriotic bunting on the walls, a large American flag overhead and a huge “Nikki Haley for President” sign in red, white and blue in the background—flanked by the South Carolina flag.
The loudspeakers belted out inspirational rock ‘n’ roll staples without missing a beat; the political press corps, from around the state and around the country, numbered by the dozen; and an audience, largely homegrown but also from out of state, was chock full of Haley campaign swag. Some wore HaleyT-shirts and baseball caps, others waved Haley campaign placards; some did both. Most stayed until the end of an hourlong program capped by Haley’s sharp, approximately 25-minute speech.
Most came away satisfied.
“It was absolutely worth it. I wouldn’t miss it. I’ve been looking forward to this since 2011,” gushed Kelly Schofield, who drove down from Fairfax, Virginia, to be here. But can the former South Carolina governor beat former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination? What about the other early grassroots favorite, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis? “I’m going to be positive,” Kelly said. “I think she can—she absolutely can. I also think that a vice presidential bid is very viable.”
Schofield’s unabashed enthusiasm for the former United States ambassador to the United Nations notwithstanding, that she hedged when asked to assess Haley’s prospects was revealing.
Since Haley departed Trump’s Cabinet—but especially since the 51-year-old’s falling out with him in the aftermath of the 2020 election—she has faced charges of political opportunism and flip-flopping from critics, both Democrat and Republican, who insist her chances of winning the 2024 primary are nil.
But the GOP voters who showed up in Charleston to cheer Haley on also question whether Haley can go the distance (albeit for different reasons.) Indeed, it’s not certain Haley will be the most popular Republican from South Carolina to seek the White House.
Asked whom they would support if Sen. Tim Scott ran for president, some rally-goers Thursday paused to mull the question. Pushed, some said they would hope for a Republican ticket led by both of them (though the 12th Amendment bars a president and vice president coming from the same state). Others indicated they might switch their support from Haley to Scott, who speaks in Charleston Thursday evening as part of a “listening tour” that takes him to Iowa next week and is considered the soft-launch of his expected presidential campaign.
“I’ve been on Facebook with her for the past couple of years asking her to run for president, along with Tim Scott for vice president. I think she would do great for our country,” said Greg Hill, 58, who lives near Charleston. However: “If Tim Scott runs … then I will probably go with Tim,” he added.
Another Charleston area resident in the crowd, 65-year-old Laurie Nejmeh, answered the question of Haley’s viability this way: “I think she should win. I think that she is certainly capable on both the domestic and foreign stage.” Then, reassessing her answer, Nejmeh, who was wearing a bright orange Haley 2024 hat, added: “I think she can win. I think it’s time for a woman.” What happens if Scott runs?
“We love Tim Scott; I think we just have to wait and see,” Nejmeh added. She finally concluded: “If Nikki’s still in, I’m sticking with Nikki.”
Scott represented the Charleston-area 1st Congressional District, which he won in the 2010 midterm elections, before then-Gov. Haley appointed him to fill a vacancy in the Senate in 2013.
Haley, acutely aware of the naysayers, preemptively pushed back in her rally address with some sarcastic swagger. “I’ve been underestimated before,” she said. “That’s always fun.”
Haley delivered a rousing address teed up by three prominent backers, including former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson; Rep. Ralph Norman, a longtime supporter of former President Donald Trump and member of the insurgent House Freedom Caucus; and Cindy Warmbier, mother of Otto Warmbier, the young American who died following his return to the U.S. after being held captive in North Korea at the hands of dictator Kim Jong-un’s regime.
The speech hit on the range of political, cultural, and aspirational themes common among Republicans today: President Joe Biden is a feckless leader, Democrats’ fiscal socialism and cultural wokeism threatens the American dream, and a return to conservative principles can prevent American decline—at home and abroad.
Yet the unmistakable case Haley made against Trump, without specifically mentioning his name, was the most poignant moment of the speech. The 45th president is the only other major Republican in the race and, for now at least, the main object between Haley and the nomination—and criticized Haley in a statement Wednesday. Although she used eloquent language, Haley declared her old boss was too old and too out of touch—not only to win, but to lead effectively if he does.
“America is not past our prime; it’s just that our politicians are past theirs,” Haley said, early in her remarks.
“I have a particular message for my fellow Republicans,” she added toward the end. “We’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Our cause is right but we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans. Well, that ends today.”