Former Ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) made it clear last week that she is eyeing a run for the Republican nomination for president. She told Fox News anchor Bret Baier she doesn't think you need to be an 80-year-old to be a leader in Washington, D.C.
"I think we need a young generation to come in, step up, and really start fixing things," she said, citing multiple problems that need a fix -- including high crime, inflation, and the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. "Do I think I could be that leader? Yes, but we are still working through things, and we'll figure it out."
That sounds like someone inching closer to announcing a run 13 years after she stunned the South Carolina Republican establishment by winning the party's nomination for governor in one of the most dramatic gubernatorial races that cycle. After coming up just short of a majority in the first round of the primary, she trounced four-term congressman Gresham Barrett 65% to 35% in the runoff.
During that race, Haley had to fight off vicious whisper campaigns about both her marriage and her Christian faith to become the first nonwhite governor of South Carolina. Although many national and local experts had written off her chances, Haley turned out to be a much more formidable political force than anyone expected.
Katon Dawson said that the first time he met Haley was long before she decided to run for governor; she was a mom, handing out doughnuts at the local middle school, and someone told him if he was looking for the real deal in conservative politics, she was someone he should know. That was 2004, and Haley was running for the state legislature against 30-year incumbent Larry Koon.
Her victory, Dawson said, marked the first and last time he has ever underestimated her.
"Nobody ever thought she'd be the governor of the state of South Carolina not once but twice," he said. "And if she is running (for president now), well, I am for her. You have to remember, she has never, ever lost a race she has been in."
Haley stepped down from the governor's office in 2017 when then-President Donald Trump nominated her as his ambassador to the United Nations. Although she has said previously she will not seek the party's nomination if her former boss runs, South Carolina Republicans not associated with her campaign argued she should take the home team advantage in the first in the South primary and go for it.
In an interview Haley gave to the Washington Examiner in October at a campaign event in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the former U.N. ambassador said she has become used to being underestimated. "I have never lost an election," she said bluntly, shrugging. When asked if she was running, she said she would spend the holidays with her family to make that decision.
Haley has remained popular among South Carolina Republican voters. Last year, she proved she still has influence when she backed Republican congresswoman Nancy Mace in a Palmetto State primary over the Trump-backed Katie Arrington in a highly competitive 1st Congressional District primary. Haley committed herself to the race, too, cutting ads, campaigning with Mace and raising money for her.
Many South Carolina politicos watched with interest as Haley proved she could take on Trump in her own backyard -- even if it was by proxy -- and beat him by eight percentage points.
Sen. Tim Scott (R), who became the first black congressman and two years later the first black U.S. senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction, is the state's most popular currently elected politician, said Dawson.
"He came up the same year Haley ran and won the gubernatorial race," Dawson said adding he is not sure if Scott has plans to run for the White House.
"I haven't heard much from Tim," he said. "Whether he's built the infrastructure to make the run, he certainly is very popular, he's a unique candidate, with a lot of skills and a lot of personality. I just don't know if he has built the infrastructure to make that run; I know that Haley has," he said.
This Saturday, Trump will hold a campaign-style event here in South Carolina -- his first in the first in the South primary state and second that day -- he will hold an event in New Hampshire earlier in the day -- marking his first full campaign swing of the 2024 cycle since announcing his intentions to run in November.
Neither Haley nor Scott will be in attendance for the Trump event; he will be joined by Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R).
South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said in an interview with the Washington Examiner that there has been a slew of GOP hopefuls visiting the state in the past few months, and he has no expectations that brisk pace is going to slow down.
"Asa Hutchinson was here," McKissick said of the former governor of Arkansas. "So has former CIA director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Vice President Mike Pence has been here multiple times."
"And of course, Sen. Scott's from here and Governor Haley is as well, we get a lot of that traffic, which folks in our party love because you have a lot of county party meetings and get good, up-close, personal meetings and dinners with potential candidates as they go around looking for people to join their campaign, volunteer, fill out staff. Voters also get to kick the tires."
McKissick said South Carolina Republican primary voters are a good mix of the conservative coalition. "We've got the strongest military presence, we've got the upstate of South Carolina with more of an emphasis on social conservatives and low country with the tourism industry down there where folks are maybe a little more fiscally conservative, not maybe so much as socially conservative as the upstate," he explained.
"And there are a lot of retirees along the coast, and then you have university presence here in Columbia and in the upstate," he said. "It's a really good microcosm of the Republican Party writ large and not incredibly expensive to campaign in."
Mace wasn't the only candidate for whom Haley raised money and campaigned last cycle. Between primary season and the fall midterm elections, she traveled to battleground states to campaign for Republican candidates running for House and Senate in an effort to help build the majorities. Although their Senate majority didn't materialize, and the House majority is much smaller than anyone expected, Dawson said that party people don't forget who showed up.
"She was out there to help over a hundred candidates across the country," he said. "All of that takes time and money, and fundraising and that also builds infrastructure."
"She has what it takes to make a go of it," he concluded. "I cannot tell you whether she is going to win, but I learned a long time ago to take her seriously."