CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley kicked off her presidential campaign on Wednesday, betting that her boundary-breaking career as a woman and person of color who governed in the heart of the South before representing the U.S. on the world stage can overcome entrenched support for her onetime boss, former President Donald Trump.
Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, made her first appearance in public as a White House hopeful in the historic coastal city of Charleston.
“I have always had a deep belief in America. But I know America is better than all of the division and distractions that we have today. And I’m confident that the American people agree," Haley said. "We’re ready. Ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past. And we are more than ready for a new generation to lead us in to the future."
The event is also an early attempt to display strength in her home state, which holds a critical early primary that influences the fate of the GOP nomination. Early Wednesday, Rep. Ralph Norman — whom Trump backed in the 2022 midterm elections — became the first House member from South Carolina to publicly endorse Haley, tweeting that he would attend her launch.
Several hundred people had filed into a open-sided metal-roofed structure known as “The Shed” adjacent to Charleston’s visitors center, an hour ahead of Haley’s speech. Campaign signs and American flags dotted the crowd, with hype music playing from a bank of speakers.
Retiree Connie Campbell said she was all in for the former governor, whom 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.”
Haley released a video on Tuesday declaring her candidacy, making her the first major Republican to officially challenge Trump, but 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.
As the presidential primary season comes into focus, the biggest question is whether anyone in the field will be able to replace Trump at the top of a party that he transformed with his first campaign in 2016. He remains popular with a wide swath of voters who will have significant sway in the primary, though some party officials have blamed him for the GOP's lackluster performance in last year's midterms. As it did 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 her announcement video, the 51-year-old Haley made no direct reference to the 76-year-old former president, instead saying it's “time for a new generation of leadership.”
There appears to be openness among Republicans for fresh faces, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In an open-ended question asking Republicans to choose who they want to lead their party, a majority of Republicans didn’t choose either Trump or DeSantis, considered the former president’s top rival. But they also didn’t have a clear alternative in mind.
Eleven other politicians, including Haley, were named by just 1% of Republicans as their preferred leader.
Haley is likely to distinguish herself in the GOP field in part by emphasizing her biography. In the video released on Tuesday, she spoke of growing up in a small South Carolina town as the daughter of Indian immigrants who experienced racist taunts. Despite growing up feeling “different,” Haley insisted that America is not a racist country.
That argument could resonate among Republican voters as many in the party push efforts to block or change the way the subject of systemic racism is taught in schools and universities.
Haley also addressed Republicans with some tough talk, saying in the video that the party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections and that should prompt a new approach. She highlighted her two successful elections as South Carolina governor, starting with the 2010 victory that made her the state’s first female and minority governor — along with the nation’s youngest, at 38.
She noted — at least in part — the defining moment of her governorship: the 2015 murders of nine Black parishioners in a Charleston church by a self-avowed white supremacist who had been pictured holding Confederate flags.
For years, Haley had resisted calls to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, even casting a rival’s push for its removal as a desperate stunt. But after the massacre 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.
The video showed Haley appearing at the church but made no reference to her work to remove the flag.
One of the survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church, Felicia Sanders, was in attendance Wednesday. Sanders’ son Tywanza was killed in the massacre.
And in the aftermath of the U.S. shooting down multiple aerial objects in recent weeks, including a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast, Haley is likely to position herself as well versed in foreign policy. Her video included imagery of her serving as Trump’s ambassador to the U.N. with the warning that “China and Russia are on the march” and that they think America can be “bullied” and “kicked around.”
“You should know this about me," Haley said. “I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”
Haley’s campaign is a reversal from two years ago, when she said she wouldn’t challenge Trump for president in 2024. But she changed her mind in recent months, citing the country’s economic troubles, among other things.
In a statement, Trump said he wished her “luck.”
“Even though Nikki Haley said, ‘I would never run against my President, he was a great President, the best President in my lifetime,’ I told her she should follow her heart and do what she wants to do," Trump told The Associated Press. "I wish her luck!”