‘First out of the foxhole’: Haley set to lead Republican challengers to Trump in 2024

In the days following January 6 2021, when mobs of Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, Nikki Haley tore into the then president, saying he had “let us down” and “lost any sort of political viability”.

But within three months, Haley, Trump’s one-time ambassador to the UN, was singing from a different hymn sheet, telling a reporter in her home state of South Carolina that she would support Trump if he sought another four years in the White House, adding: “I would not run if President Trump ran.”

Now, less than two years later, Haley, the 51-year-old former governor of South Carolina long seen as a rising star in the Republican party, is set to make another U-turn by launching her own campaign for president on Wednesday.

She will become the first Republican to challenge Trump for the party’s nomination in 2024, in a significant affront to her former boss that underscores the growing divisions in the GOP over who should be its standard-bearer heading into next year’s presidential election.

“There will always be critics and cowards. That’s never stopped me before,” Haley said in a social media post last week alongside a video teasing the campaign launch. “Now is not the time to hold back. Now is the time for a strong and proud America. Change is coming.”

While Trump continues to command support from a significant plurality of the party’s grassroots, elected Republicans and deep-pocketed donors have increasingly called for the party to move in a new direction, especially after a relatively disappointing performance in November’s midterm elections.

Haley is likely to be the first in a series of former Trump administration officials and one-time allies to enter the race in the coming weeks and months. Other possible candidates include Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-president, and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, is increasingly seen as a favourite among the GOP grassroots. All of them face a delicate political dance as they seek to carve out their own lane in what could be a crowded primary field, while not stoking the ire of Trump and his loyal base of supporters.

“You have got 10 or 11 candidates who are scared to death of Donald Trump. The only one that shows any courage or leadership is the one that jumps out of the foxhole first,” said one Republican donor who urged Haley to run. But they added: “You know, it’s always the first one out of the foxhole to get shot.”

A poll conducted last month by North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm, found the majority of likely Republican primary and caucus voters were ready to move on from Trump, believing either he cannot win a general election or that he is too focused on the past rather than the future.

The survey found that in a hypothetical 10-way ballot, DeSantis led with 39 per cent of the vote, followed by Trump on 28 per cent, Pence on 9 per cent, and Haley and former congresswoman Liz Cheney on 4 per cent each.

Whit Ayres, the veteran Republican pollster and strategist who conducted the poll, said it was “not at all unusual for people to start way back in the pack” and argued that with a year left to go until the Iowa caucuses, the race was “wide open” for Haley or another challenger to gain ground.

“All the reticence about Trump refers to his personal characteristics, not his policy positions. It is all about his behaviour, his mouth, his divisiveness, his combativeness,” Ayres said. “If you can offer many of the things that Republicans liked about Trump, without all the deleterious personal characteristics, you can present a very attractive face.”

Haley is described by allies and observers in South Carolina as an “agile” and “formidable” politician who has repeatedly beaten the odds at the ballot box.

A traditional economic and social conservative, Haley has drawn frequent parallels between herself and Margaret Thatcher, even paraphrasing the former UK prime minister in the title of her most recent book If You Want Something Done . . . Leadership Lessons from Bold Women.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, she worked as a book-keeper for her family’s small business before entering local politics. In 2004, she successfully ousted an incumbent Republican to take up a seat in South Carolina’s state legislature, and six years later was elected as its first female governor.

In 2017, Trump tapped her as his ambassador to the UN. She voluntarily stepped down from the role two years later, and unlike many Trump appointees, she left office in the president’s good graces, and untainted by scandal.

“She is one of the very few people who came out of the Trump administration with her reputation enhanced,” said Ayres. “The vast majority of people who joined the administration did not.”

Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican strategist in Greenville, South Carolina, agreed, saying: “She wisely left to be able to lay claim to her bona fides with the movement, if you will, but she left before she got tarred and feathered.”

But Felkel questioned whether Haley’s more recent flip-flopping on Trump would undercut her credibility, both with his loyalists and conservatives looking for a clean break with the former president.

“She has . . . [tried] to stay friendly with the Trump people, but yet carve out her own independence, and that has been a straddle for her,” said Felkel. “If she is going to do this, she has got to make that break . . . go all in and tell people who are ready to get past the chaos why she is the alternative.”

Haley’s supporters, however, insist she will be able to thread the needle.

“Nikki’s entire career has been about speaking out when she thinks she needs to speak out, and then supporting policies that she believes in,” said Alex Stroman, the former executive director of the South Carolina Republican party who worked on Trump’s 2016 inauguration committee. “I don’t think that this is a binary choice. I think you can do both and I think she has.”

Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver in Washington

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