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Five months in, Nikki Haley is still waiting for her moment

The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and her allies feel like they'll soon prove the doubters wrong. Her rivals aren't worried.
Republican Presidential hopeful Nikki Haley in Arlington, Va., on April 25, 2023.
Nikki Haley has struggled to break out of the pack of GOP presidential hopefuls.Stefani Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — When Nikki Haley entered the presidential race Feb. 15, she was polling at 4.5%.

Five months later, she’s at 4.4%.

But in Haley’s telling, and that of her allies, she’s got everyone right where she wants them: doubting her.

“I have been underestimated in everything I have ever done,” Haley told a crowd of northern New Hampshire voters this month. “And it’s a blessing, because it makes me scrappy.”

At the town hall here, Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and twice-elected governor of South Carolina, explained that she’s well familiar with having to overcome small poll numbers, low name ID and minimal press coverage.

There was her first run for the state Legislature in 2004, when she unseated a longtime incumbent after entering the race with little fanfare. Then there was her first gubernatorial run in 2010, when she emerged from a deep field of well-known contenders.

“I was ‘Nikki who?’” she said. “I had 3% in the polls. I had the least amount of money. And I worked South Carolina like no one else and won.”

Those doubts are unlikely to cool off anytime soon. The lone female contender in the GOP presidential primary, Haley has largely been operating in neutral as her rivals have seen polling shifts large and small. Here in the Granite State, which Haley has heavily targeted, a University of New Hampshire survey released Tuesday found her tied for sixth, just behind North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — two long-shot aspirants who entered the race almost four months after her.

And even as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign has stumbled out of the gate — opening up room for one of the many alternatives to former President Donald Trump to climb into second place — much of the attention has turned not to Haley, but to her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott. In a confidential memo, DeSantis’ campaign named Scott as a potential rising threat while dismissing the former governor, who first appointed Scott to the seat, as someone attracting “low to no interest.” 

What’s more, several Republicans who spoke with NBC News said they did not expect Haley’s fortunes to soon change. Terry Sullivan, the former campaign manager of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, said Haley’s message has been too “muddled.”

She’s tried to tout her time as U.N. ambassador while running against Trump, the man who gave her the position. She’s pushed a strong foreign policy message, even though her primary experience in that area was representing the United States at an institution conservatives loathe. And she has tried to both tout her unique background as the daughter of Indian immigrants and the first female governor of South Carolina while at the same time criticizing identity politics. 

“She tries to be the Goldilocks candidate,” Sullivan said. “And it’s going to take a really clean message to cut through and resonate with primary voters that clearly want an alternative to Trump but just aren’t seeing it out there.”

Haley, whose campaign declined an interview request for this article, has so far built her campaign around holding town-hall-style events in Iowa and New Hampshire, with a lesser focus on her home state.

“When people see her, they’re going to really be pleasantly surprised,” former New Hampshire state Rep. Kim Rice, a Haley supporter, said. “And I think we’re going to see a big shift.”

Nikki Haley
Haley's supporters say she's been in tough races before — and she's proved her detractors wrong.Alex Brandon / AP file

Where Haley fits in

On the stump, Haley’s pitch centers on a more muscular foreign policy — namely countering China and supporting Ukraine in the ongoing war with Russia — curbing the national debt by reforming entitlement programs and offering more moderate messaging on social issues when compared to the primary field writ large. They are positions that may help her with some Trump-weary voters and traditional conservatives but have her largely out-of-step with much of the primary electorate.

“Nikki’s not out there fighting social issues that affect the 1 and 2 percenters; she’s fighting issues that affect every family — and that’s their pocketbooks,” South Carolina state Rep. Chris Wooten, a Haley supporter, said. “And their protection.”

In North Conway, voters said they weren’t committed Haley backers but wanted to get to know her better as they weighed their primary vote and looked to find who could best take on Trump.

“I’m here to listen. I’m giving her a chance to convince me that I ought to at least pay attention,” said Greg Wannenwetsch, a Center Harbor, New Hampshire, resident who attended Haley’s town hall here. “I’m disappointed that Trump has obliterated everybody so far. I want to see a real campaign. And I don’t want to see everybody get defeated before this ever starts.”

But, he added: “I’m afraid she might not be conservative enough for me.”

Haley’s pitch is geared toward winning in November, something she nods to when talking about how the GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of eight national elections and hasn’t been winning many major races in recent years. 

“She’s got all the tools,” a Republican operative not working for a presidential candidate said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “She’s been tested; she’s won from behind. She’s been the person at the bottom of the polling heap. She’s gotten big things done. She’s dynamic on the stump; she interacts with voters. She’s got a small, lean staff. She’s built up a lot of favors around the country, helping candidates in tough election cycles from the years past. So she has the right type of operation. It’s just whether she’ll ever be able to kick it into another gear.”

There have been positive developments in recent days on the fundraising front. The Haley campaign raised more than $5.3 million this quarter and has north of $6.8 million in cash on hand, nearly $3 million more than it began the second quarter with, according to the campaign’s filing with the Federal Election Commission.

Scott, who ended the period with roughly $21 million in the bank following a transfer from his Senate account, spent about $1 million more than he raised, while DeSantis’ campaign finances show some flashing warning signs.

In a memo published Wednesday, Mark Harris, the lead strategist for the pro-Haley super PAC Stand for America, argued that Haley is one of just four candidates who can win the nomination, alongside Trump, DeSantis and Scott. He pointed to opportunities in Trump’s plateauing poll numbers, questions about DeSantis’ viability and Scott’s spending.

Team Haley, Harris said, is “about to enter the second phase of the campaign,” and he said the super PAC “will fund an aggressive voter contact campaign to increase awareness about Nikki” in the coming weeks.

“While it’s unlikely there will be tremendous polling movement before the end of the year, our effort is to build the base for Nikki, whose incredible track record, talent for retail politics and determination to win will allow her to make a strong late move in New Hampshire and Iowa,” Harris wrote. 

Image: Nikki Haley
Haley has had a tougher time attracting endorsements from her home state against the other South Carolinian in the race, Sen. Tim Scott.Meg Kinnard / AP file

‘She’s not worried’

Haley is continuing to face a problem that has plagued the entire GOP field: how to distinguish oneself from Trump without alienating his base, which is needed to win.

“You can sell them on Nikki Haley. I know how to do that,” Iowa state Rep. Austin Harris, a Haley backer, said of voters. “But how do you convince them to move on from President Trump?”

When asked if Haley could emerge from the pack of challengers to seriously challenge Trump for the nomination, one Trump campaign official flatly responded, “No.”

“She was like the No. 1 requested surrogate in 2022,” this person added. “And you’d have thought that she’d have found a way to parlay that and cash in all those chips, but they just haven’t been able to.”

A potential warning sign for her bid: Haley has found tough sledding in the battle for endorsements in her home state — which also hosts a critical early primary contest. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., for whom Haley campaigned in a bruising primary against a Trump-backed rival, has remained neutral. Many others have flocked to back Scott’s candidacy or are linking up with Trump or DeSantis.

“Nikki’s got a lot of enemies,” one South Carolina political operative said of Haley’s standing with GOP leaders throughout the state.

Her campaign attributes the endorsement disparity with Scott, who has received dozens more in the Palmetto State, to unpopular decisions she made as governor, including requiring on-the-record voting for all legislation and issuing report cards showing how closely state lawmakers aligned with her. 

Many of Haley’s supporters, while offering Scott praise, said the former governor had had to take more hard positions in the state than Scott did and has battled through tougher campaigns. 

“Tim’s never had to piss anybody off,” said South Carolina state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Haley supporter.

Haley was a rising star who was long thought of as presidential timber, particularly for her handling of the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church shooting that left nine Black worshippers dead at the hands of a white supremacist. Haley attracted national attention — including a fair amount of praise from unlikely allies — for removing the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds.

Yet her removal of the Confederate flag may be contributing to her current standing with state GOP voters. Shery Smith, a school board member in Sumter County who is backing Scott, said she has heard from a number of voters dismayed by her doing so. More recently, Smith said some South Carolina conservatives were perplexed by Haley’s invitation to Disney to relocate thousands of jobs from Florida to South Carolina as DeSantis escalated his feud with the entertainment giant.

“I heard a lot of, ‘Are you kidding me?’ … People were not happy about it,” she said, adding, “She’s got to have traction in her own home state or she’s not going anywhere.”

All eyes are now aimed at the first primary debate next month, which Haley’s supporters believe can shake up the field regardless of whether Trump ultimately shows up.

“The debate is going to be the inflection point,” Wooten said. “I think the race is going to change dramatically in the fall. Right now, I think she’s in third, fourth place, whatever the numbers say today. But I know that she’s building a grassroots operation. She’s not worried.”