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Nikki Haley jumps into the presidential race with a call for generational change

Haley called on Americans to stop “trusting politicians from the 20th century” and pledged to institute mental competency tests for elected officials over 75 years old.
Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, launches her 2024 presidential campaign on Feb. 15, 2023, in Charleston, S.C.
Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the U.N., launches her 2024 presidential campaign Wednesday in Charleston, S.C.Meg Kinnard / AP

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nikki Haley kicked off her presidential campaign Wednesday with a speech calling for the country to back away from older politicians, cease “self-loathing” and forcefully combat China, Russia and Iran.

“We’re ready,” Haley said, “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 into the future.”

Speaking before a crowd of a few thousand at the Charleston Visitor Center, the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations talked up her personal story as the daughter of Indian immigrants and the first person of color elected governor in the state, while also insisting she would not center “identity politics” in her bid. 

Instead, she said the change that’s needed in Washington is generational, calling on Americans to stop “trusting politicians from the 20th century” while pledging to institute mental competency tests for older elected officials should she be elected.

"In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire," she said. "We’ll have term limits for Congress — and mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old."

Haley is the first major challenger to step forward to face off with Donald Trump in the GOP presidential primary, though it’s likely there will be others. She made only passing direct reference to the former president in her speech but indirectly tied him in with leaders she framed as being out of touch with the country.

She took more direct aim at President Joe Biden, saying he, more than anyone else, “embodies” why the country is “falling behind,” citing rising prices, learning losses from the pandemic and a surge of migrants coming across the southern border. She also spoke at length about race and gender, saying that “every day, we’re told America is flawed, rotten and full of hate.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said to loud cheers, adding, “And take it from the first minority female governor in history: America is not a racist country. This self-loathing is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic.”

“America isn’t perfect, but the principles at America’s core are perfect,” she added.

Haley also put national security front and center in her speech, talking up the need to align with Ukraine and Israel while describing China as “the strongest and most disciplined enemy in history.” A survey released Tuesday by the right-wing American Principles Project and OnMessage showed the vast majority of Republicans prefer candidates who focus on cultural issues rather than entitlements, immigration and national security issues like Ukraine.

“But let me be clear,” Haley said. “We won’t win the fight for the 21st century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th century. America is on a path of doubt, division and self-destruction. A path of fading patriotism and weakening power. The stakes are nothing less than our survival.”

Broadening out to domestic policy, Haley called for national mandatory e-verify for employers and voter ID for citizens.

She said that realizing the goals she set forth will require “sending a tough-as-nails woman to the White House.”

“I’ve been underestimated before,” she said. “That’s always fun. And I’ve been shaking up the status quo my entire life.”

She added: “I will simply say this: May the best woman win.”

“All kidding aside, this is not about identity politics,” she added. “I don’t believe in that. And I don’t believe in glass ceilings either. I believe in creating a country where anyone can do anything and achieve their own American dream.”

Notably, however, Haley did not mention restricting abortion, which has long been a core conservative issue. Abortion was front and center in the midterm elections, with an NBC News exit poll showing Americans had it as their top issue, along with inflation. Democrats campaigned hard against Republicans for the conservative Supreme Court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion access.

Haley also called out Republicans for having lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential races.

“Our cause is right, but we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans,” she said. “Well, that ends today. If you’re tired of losing, then put your trust in a new generation.”

Haley was joined at the event by a handful of allies, including Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a member of the House Freedom Caucus who endorsed her earlier Wednesday. Other Republicans in the state — like Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson — have lined up behind Trump, while more still wait to see how the field shapes up. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who represents the district where Haley resides, was not in attendance at Haley's campaign launch, for example.

Haley may also soon have competition from a fellow South Carolina Republican, as Sen. Tim Scott, who is embarking on a “listening tour” this month, looks to be building a presidential campaign of his own.

In introducing Haley, Norman praised Trump, saying he believes the former president was “one of the great leaders of all time.”

Still, he said he felt that Haley was best situated for 2024 and that she “is America’s version of Margaret Thatcher,” the deeply conservative British prime minister.

“Nikki will be a leader with an iron fist and a velvet glove,” he said, adding, “Republicans are desperately looking for new leadership at the top of the ticket.”

John Hagee, a pastor and founder of Christians United for Israel, gave the invocation at Haley’s event. In 2008, then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement after considerable criticism of his past remarks. Hagee had referred to the Roman Catholic Church as the “great whore,” and preached that God had sent Hitler to help Jews return to Israel and that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for LGBTQ rights. He later apologized for his remarks.

South Carolina plays an important role in presidential contests as an early primary state, and the winner of the GOP primary has won the presidential nomination in every year it has been held since 1980, except for 2012.

"I think there will be no coronation in South Carolina," Steven Wright, the chairman of the Dorchester County GOP, told NBC News ahead of Haley’s launch. "Nobody is guaranteed our vote."

Karin Weiss, who attended Haley’s launch with her family, said it was exciting to see a local candidate launch her presidential campaign and wanted her children to be able to take part in a historic event. 

“I feel like South Carolina has exploded in growth in the last 10 years, and I think it shows something about how she governed and how she ran the state,” she said. “People are flocking down here.”

Her mother, Terrie, said she liked Haley’s commercials and platform, adding that she would be excited for her to be the “first female president.”

They both think Haley has a shot to win.

It will be an uphill climb. Early polling shows that she trails both Trump, in whose administration she served, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely believed to be launching a presidential bid of his own in the coming months.

After Haley announced her candidacy in a video Tuesday in which she called for “a new generation of leadership,” Trump said he wished her “luck” but pointed to Haley having previously said she would not run against Trump.

“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. I wish her luck!” he said. The super PAC backing Trump called Haley “a career politician whose only fulfilled commitment is to herself.”

Democrats, meanwhile, blasted Haley for her service under Trump and for policies she backed as governor of South Carolina.

Haley “spent most of her time working for and praising Donald Trump and has long embraced some of the most extreme elements of the MAGA agenda,” Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison, who sought a Senate seat in South Carolina in 2020, said Tuesday.

At just 38, Haley rode the tea party-inspired GOP wave to South Carolina’s governorship in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014. Her history with Trump is complicated. In 2016, she campaigned against him and described the then-candidate as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” Then she joined his administration as ambassador to the United Nations, where she served for two years. After the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, she said she was “disgusted” with Trump’s attacks against his vice president, Mike Pence, who refused to go along with Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s victory. Months later, she said she would not run for president if Trump did.

Cindy Warmbier, mother of Otto Warmbier, the college student who died in 2017 after being held captive in North Korea, said in introducing Haley on Wednesday that the former governor “was a glimmer of light in the darkest period of my life.”

“A lot of people in politics will tell you about how highly they think of themselves,” she said. “Nikki is not like that.”

CORRECTION (Feb. 15, 2023, 2:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the Democratic National Committee chairman. He is Jaime Harrison, not Jamie.