Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called on Wednesday for the United States to move on from a rapidly aging generation of politicians, pitching her newly minted campaign for the White House as a chance for voters to install a younger and more diverse leader.
“We’re ready — ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past,” Haley said, speaking to a crowd of supporters in Charleston, S.C. “And we are more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future.”
Haley on Tuesday became the second Republican to jump into the party’s presidential nominating contest and the first to mount a formal challenge to former President Trump. Her candidacy — and how Trump handles it — is a crucial test case for other Republicans eyeing the White House.
The former South Carolina governor worked at points in her speech to strike a unifying tone, telling supporters that “America is better than all of the division and distractions that we have today.”
“And I am confident that the American people agree,” she added.
Woven throughout her remarks were a series of traditional Republican talking points: the need to confront a dangerous world, including a rising China, as well as a call to ramp up security at the U.S. southern border. But it also included red-meat issues designed to entice the GOP’s conservative base.
At one comment that drew a relatively lukewarm response from the audience, Haley brought up so-called election integrity, pledging to make “voter ID the law of the land” and ensure that “everyone has full confidence in our elections.” She also vowed to “stop the surge of drugs and illegal immigration,” echoing the rhetoric used by Trump when he announced his first bid for the White House in 2015.
At another point, she demanded mandatory “mental competency tests” for office-holders over the age of 75, playing into a frequent conservative claim that President Biden isn’t mentally fit to serve in the White House. But that remark was also a tacit swipe at Trump, who would be 78 by the time of his second swearing-in.
Haley also waded into culture war issues throughout her speech, pushing back on accusations that the U.S. is a racist country.
“A self-loathing has swept our country. It’s in the classroom, the boardroom and the backrooms of government,” Haley said. “Every day, we’re told America is flawed, rotten and full of hate. Joe and Kamala even say America is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Her speech came as an attempt to bridge the gap between the Trump-aligned mainstream of the GOP and the faction of more traditional Republicans who have felt isolated from the party under Trump’s leadership.
The former governor touted her own identity as the daughter of Indian immigrants.
“My parents left India in search of a better life, they lived in South Carolina. Our town came to love us, but it wasn’t always easy, we were the only Indian family,” Haley said.
She also leaned into her identity as a woman but also pushed back against the idea of identity politics.
“May the best woman win,” Haley said to applause. “All kidding aside, this is not about identity politics. I don’t believe in that and I don’t believe in glass ceilings either.”
In becoming the first Republican to challenge Trump for the GOP nod, Haley is hoping to capitalize on the relatively empty field to force a close look from Republican primary voters and donors. But she also faces a tough path.
Early polling shows her struggling to lift her support out of the single-digits, while Trump remains the ostensible front-runner. So far, only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who hasn’t yet announced a campaign, has emerged in polling as a viable alternative to Trump.
At the same time, she has irked both Trump’s allies and his detractors. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, criticized Haley’s candidacy on Tuesday, casting her as a once-promising politician who sold out to the former president for political gain.
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, responded to Haley’s entrance into the race on Wednesday, blasting out an email including Haley’s prior stances on issues like entitlement reform and her past remarks saying Hillary Clinton inspired her to run for public office.
But Haley’s allies are quick to note that she’s won tough races before, noting how she came from behind in her 2010 bid for the GOP’s South Carolina gubernatorial nomination, defeating Republican heavyweights, including now-Gov. Henry McMaster.
She also has a strong base of support in her home state. On Wednesday, Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.) became the first Republican member of Congress to throw his support behind Haley.
“It’s time for a reset and a new chapter in national Republican politics, and there’s no better person to help write that new chapter than our former governor and my good friend, Nikki Haley!” Norman tweeted.