CHARLESTON, S.C. – Nikki Haley launched her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday with a call for generational change in Washington and a rejection of what she derided as “identity politics” dividing the United States.
Speaking from the historic coastal city of Charleston, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador struck themes intended to resonate with the Republican voters she will court as the first major GOP challenger to former President Donald Trump.
She blasted President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats as too liberal and insisted there's not a problem with racism in the U.S. as they contend. But there were occasional notes that could appeal beyond the GOP base, including appeals for unity and criticism of corporate bailouts.
Haley, who is 51, said that Republicans have repeatedly lost the popular vote in recent elections because they “failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans.” The solution, she said, was to “put your trust in a new generation.”
“America is not past its prime,” she told a crowd of several hundred people gathered near Charleston’s visitors center. “It’s just that our politicians are past theirs.”
That was an obvious knock on Biden, who, at 80, is the oldest president in history, a fact that makes even some Democrats uneasy. But it was also a slight of Trump, who has launched a third White House bid and remains popular with wide swaths of Republican voters. Trump is 76 and has had an up-and-down relationship with Haley from the early days of the 2016 campaign through her time in his administration.
Haley said she would support a “mandatory mental competency test for politicians over 75 years old.”
While Haley is the first major Republican to officially challenge Trump, she will hardly be the last. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are among those expected to launch campaigns in the coming months. Haley’s fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott is also weighing a White House bid.
At a time when Biden is holding together a Western alliance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine and facing scrutiny for his handling of unidentified aerial objects, Haley leaned into the national security credentials she said she gained at the U.N. Among the speakers who introduced her was the mother of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea and died shortly after his release.
In her remarks, Haley criticized Biden's presiding over the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, North Korea's launch of missiles, heightened Russian aggression and an emboldened China.
“Today our enemies think that the American era has passed," she said. “They’re wrong.”
As the presidential primary season comes into focus, the biggest question is whether anyone in the field will be able to push Trump from his position at the top of a party that he transformed with his first campaign in 2016. Though he enjoys enduring support with some Republican voters, he's been blamed by some party officials for the GOP’s lackluster performance in last year’s midterms.
As in 2016, a crowded field could work to Trump’s advantage, allowing him to march to the nomination while his opponents divide support among themselves.
In an interview with Fox News Digital, Trump said he was glad Haley is running.
“I want her to follow her heart — even though she made a commitment that she would never run against who she called the greatest president of her lifetime," he said.
Pence hasn't yet announced a campaign. But during a visit Wednesday to the early voting state of Iowa, he said she did a “great job” when she worked in the Trump administration.
“I wish her well,” Pence said. "She may have more company soon in the race for president, and I promise folks here in Iowa and all of you I’ll keep you posted.”
During a visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another possible presidential contender, said Haley's announcement was highly anticipated.
“So we'll let her have her day,” Noem said.
During her launch, Haley made clear that she would seek to distinguish herself in the GOP field in part by emphasizing her biography. She spoke of growing up in a small South Carolina town as the daughter of immigrants who experienced racist taunts. Still, she insisted that America was not a “racist country.”
“This self loathing is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic,” she said.
But the nation's complicated experience with race was hard to dismiss. As Haley spoke, a white racist who killed 10 Black people last year at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
And the very venue from which Haley spoke was just a few blocks from Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine Black parishioners were murdered in 2015 by a self-avowed white supremacist who had been pictured holding Confederate flags. One of the survivors, Felicia Sanders, was in attendance Wednesday. Sanders’ son Tywanza was killed in the massacre.
The Charleston shooting was a defining moment of Haley's governorship. For years, she resisted calls to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, even portraying a rival’s push for its removal as a desperate stunt. But after the church shootings and with the support of other leading Republicans, Haley advocated for legislation to remove the flag. It came down less than a month after the murders.
A campaign video that Haley released on Tuesday referred to the shooting, but made no reference to her work to remove the flag.
In unveiling her campaign in Charleston, Haley sought to show some strength in her home state, which holds a critical early primary that influences the GOP nomination. Ahead of Wednesday's event, Rep. Ralph Norman — whom Trump backed in the 2022 midterm elections — became the first House member from South Carolina to publicly endorse Haley.
Those in the crowd said they were excited by the prospect of a Haley presidency. Retiree Connie Campbell said she was all in for the former governor, who she said has “got so much to offer.”
“She’s very experienced in politics and as a family person, a mother, a wife,” said Campbell, noting her admiration for the way Haley led South Carolina through tragedies including the Charleston shooting. “She had a lot to go through as our governor.”
If elected, Haley would be the first woman as well as woman of color to assume the presidency, a historic fact that she embraced — to an extent. She said she rejects identity politics and also doesn't believe in “glass ceilings.” That phrase became popular in politics when Hillary Clinton conceded to Barack Obama after a bitter primary fight in 2008, noting that she wasn't yet able to “shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
Still, Haley wore white on stage in a nod to the suffragette movement and leaned into gender as she wrapped up her remarks.
“As I set out on this new journey, I will simply say this – may the best woman win,” she said to roars of approval.
Price reported from New York. Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Stephen Groves in Washington contributed to this report.