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Nikki Haley is a real threat to Donald Trump

The former South Carolina governor is the only official to have served in his administration and emerged with her reputation intact.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 18 December and has been republished ahead of the Iowa caucuses to reflect Nikki Haley’s surge in support. The final poll before the Iowa caucuses, conducted by NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom, shows Haley edging out Ron DeSantis with 20 per cent versus his 16 per cent; both candidates trail behind Donald Trump, who took 48 per cent in the poll. Voters in Iowa will kick-off the 2024 presidential race tonight, and results are expected at around 01:45 GMT on Tuesday morning.

At the Republican presidential primary debate in Miami on 8 November, the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy came prepared to deliver what he imagined would be a zinger against his rival Nikki Haley. “Do you want a leader from a different generation who’s going to put this country first?” he asked. “Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” “They’re five-inch heels,” Haley replied to cheers from the audience. “They’re not for a fashion statement, they’re for ammunition.”

The former UN ambassador’s retort was swiftly immortalised in the form of an official campaign mug, now available on her website for $19. You can also buy an “Underestimate Me, That’ll Be Fun” T-shirt for $25, or a neon pink one emblazoned with the Margaret Thatcher quote, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

But Haley’s strong debate performances have delivered more than a thriving line of merchandise. She is surging in the polls, leading the Florida governor Ron DeSantis in two of the first three primary states – although both still lag far behind Donald Trump – and attracting the support of major donors. The billionaire investor Stanley Druckenmiller announced on 13 November that he was backing Haley, as did Eric Levine, a New York-based Republican fundraiser who had supported the South Carolina senator Tim Scott until he dropped out of the race. Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Citadel and one of the Republican Party’s largest donors, told Bloomberg on 14 November that he was “actively contemplating” supporting Haley’s campaign. She also appears to be courting the JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, a Democrat, who has reportedly held several private phone conversations with Haley and told Axios he believes she has the potential to “bring the country together”.

Haley, 51, offers an alternative vision for the Republican Party’s future. The only woman running for the party’s nomination, and the only candidate other than Trump with any foreign policy experience, she is pitching a return to George W Bush-style social conservatism at home and an unapologetically neoconservative approach to the wider world. (It was notable that she did not reject Ramaswamy’s reference to Cheney.) She advocates continued support for Ukraine, strengthening US alliances and unequivocal backing for Israel. When the candidates were asked in Miami how they would advise Benjamin Netanyahu to deal with Hamas if they were president, Haley made clear that she had already spoken to the Israeli prime minister. “The first thing I said to him when it happened was: finish them,” she said. “Finish them.”

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Unlike DeSantis, who has struggled with basic human interactions on the campaign trail, Haley comes across as charismatic and competent. She leans into her biography as the daughter of Indian immigrants, the mother of two grown-up children and the wife of a combat veteran (her husband, Michael, is deployed in Djibouti, east Africa, as an officer in the South Carolina National Guard). Where many of Haley’s Republican rivals have failed to craft a message on abortion that doesn’t alienate moderate voters, she has adopted what she calls a “consensus” approach, making clear that although she is personally “pro-life”, she doesn’t “judge anyone for being pro-choice”.

[See also: Why Trump will win]

While a recent New York Times/Siena College poll found Trump ahead of Joe Biden in five of six battleground states in the 2024 election, it showed Haley winning all six comfortably. There is only one barrier to Haley’s continued ascendancy: her former boss.

Nikki Haley was born in the small town of Bamberg, South Carolina, in 1972. Her father, Ajit Singh Randhawa, was a biology professor, while her mother, Raj Kaur Randhawa, worked as a teacher before starting a fashion business that grew into a million-dollar enterprise, enabling them to send their daughter to a private school. But the story Haley tells most often about her childhood is of pulling up to a roadside fruit stand with her father and watching the owner take in his turban and pick up the phone. Police cars arrived within minutes and the pair drove home in silence. “My dad didn’t say a single word going home. He was hoping I didn’t notice,” Haley recalled in an interview. “But I hurt for him… I remember that pain.” 

Haley took over the accounts for her mother’s business at 13 and graduated from Clemson University in 1994 with a degree in accounting. There, she met her future husband, then known as Bill, whom she convinced to go by his middle name, Michael, instead. “You just don’t look like a Bill,” she told him. She ran for the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004, becoming the first Indian-American to hold office in the state, and was elected governor in 2010 – the first woman and the first person of colour to hold the role. “I’ve always been the only one of something,” she told Politico. “There’s never been a line to the women’s bathroom in any of the jobs that I did.”

After a white supremacist gunman murdered nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston in 2015, Haley led the effort to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol. She criticised Trump’s refusal to denounce the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ahead of the 2016 election and backed Marco Rubio in the South Carolina primary. But when Trump asked her to serve as his ambassador to the UN, she accepted and refrained from criticising him in public. She resigned in 2018 to effusive praise from Trump, who called her a “fantastic person”, making her one of the few officials to serve in his administration and emerge with both her reputation and their relationship intact. 

In her campaign for the presidential nomination, Haley has played up her “take no prisoners” approach. “You should know this about me,” she says in her campaign video, over footage of her voting at the UN Security Council. “I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.” Except she does put up with bullies. Her run is predicated on the credentials she acquired serving under Trump, a man who has repeatedly made racist and misogynist comments – the two traits Haley claims to most abhor. After the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, she – along with other prominent Republicans – criticised Trump, saying he had “let us down”. But by October that year she was praising him as a leader with the “ability to get strong people elected” and insisting that “we need him in the Republican Party”. During the campaign she has been careful to avoid directly confronting him. When asked about Trump during one debate, Haley described him as the “right president at the right time [in 2016]” even if she does not think “he’s the right president now”.

There is a sound political strategy behind Haley’s compromise. She knows that the Republican base is still in thrall to Trump and that she cannot afford to alienate his supporters if she wants to have a chance of winning the nomination. Her best bet lies in beating DeSantis to become the party’s second choice, then hoping Trump flames out over the coming year, perhaps finally felled by his many criminal trials. This is a long shot. Still, Nikki Haley is ambitious, and no matter what happens next year, she may already have her sights set on the next race in 2028.

This article was originally published on 22 November, prior to the fourth Republican presidential debate on 6 December.

[See also: Ron DeSantis’s campaign is already lost]

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