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Inside Nikki Haley’s quest to be America’s Iron Lady

July 10, 2023
| New York Post by Ryan King

LITTLETON, N.H. — When Nikki Haley looks at America, she sees a nation full of self-loathing as its debt skyrockets and a belligerent China emerges as a threat to its pre-eminence.

In her eyes, the US is in a rut that requires an iron will to snap out of.

“I think America needs a woman of steel like no other,” Haley, 51, told The Post from a hotel in this town of 6,000 just across the Connecticut River from Vermont.

“They need someone who’s going to tell them the truth,” she added. “They need someone who’s going to make the hard decisions.”

To Haley’s supporters, this bleak assessment of American in 2023 is no accident, but meant to recall a very different time and place: Great Britain, circa 1979.

“It is my great pleasure to introduce to you who I believe is America’s Iron Lady, Ambassador Nikki Haley,” Kim Rice, former Speaker pro tempore of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, proclaimed at a VFW post in nearby Lancaster Friday as a storm brewed outside.

Haley is a heavy underdog in the dozen-strong 2024 GOP race, dominated by former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But as the sole woman in the Republican field, the most diverse in the party’s 169-year-history, comparisons to conservative icon and late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are intuitive to some of her backers.

“I see her as someone I want my daughters and my granddaughter to look up to, to aspire to be like. She is a formidable leader,” Rice told The Post. “No one should underestimate her.”

Like many Republicans, Haley has bristled at identity politics and the purported culture of victimhood in America

Simultaneously, she is quick to remind voters about her upbringing as a “proud daughter of Indian immigrants” and how she grappled with that while coming of age in South Carolina only a few years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“We have to end this national self-loathing that has taken over our country,” she frequently told attendees during her recent stops in the Granite State, noting that her home state made her the first minority female governor in the country back in 2010. “America is not racist, we’re blessed.”

Haley’s supporters –and even some undecided voters — make no secret of their desire for the first female president to be a conservative woman.

“She’s still dealing with a man’s world. She needs support of more men,” undecided voter Carolyn Grant, 76, told The Post following a meet and greet with Haley at a bakery in Lincoln, in the heart of the White Mountains.

Haley herself has cultivated a Thatcher-like image, at least superficially. Before she officially launched her campaign back in February, Haley paid homage to the former PM in a 2024 Twitter tease and wrote fondly of the British stateswoman (who died in 2013) in her book, “If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons from Bold Women.” (Even the title is a take off on one of Thatcher’s most memorable quotes: “If you want someone to make a speech, ask a man; if you want to get something done, ask a woman.”)

Similar to the Iron Lady’s consistent anti-Soviet stance, Haley has trafficked heavily in stark rhetoric about foreign threats on the campaign trail, a throwback to her time representing America as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“China has been preparing for war with the United States for a long time,” she warned during some of her stump speeches in northern New Hampshire. “That’s not being dramatic. This is the biggest threat we’ve had since Pearl Harbor.”

“I think she is very experienced in foreign policy. I think she has the right exact position on China,” said 33-year-old Dhruv Nandamudi of Pittsburg, N.H., who brought his wife, baby, and dog to Haley’s Lancaster town hall.

“No candidate is perfect, but specifically on her foreign policy, I think she was as good as it gets,” he concluded.

Despite her emphasis on Beijing, Haley pointedly stops short of describing the US rivalry with China as a new Cold War.

“People put too much emphasis on terminology. I see it more as infiltration,” she told The Post, underscoring Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition to “own the data.”

“You can’t negotiate with dictators; you can’t negotiate with thugs that want to take over the West and want to take over our country,” she said. “Instead, what you can do is be strong and show them that we’re prepared to defend ourselves.”

But foreign policy isn’t everything in politics.

Nandamudi, who said he is still exploring candidates, was critical of Haley for not being more committed to pro-life policies or reforming the Justice Department — a favorite topic of Republican primary voters post-Trump.

In addition, not all of Haley’s target audience are fond of hardline approaches in the global arena. Some have been weary of getting entangled in foreign conflicts and railed against the so-called “neocons” thought to have been behind the drive to invade Iraq a generation ago.

A sizable number of Republicans in Congress have taken issue with the burgeoning price tag of stockpiling Ukraine with weapons in its efforts to stave off Russian aggressors. The GOP 2024 frontrunner, Trump, only speaks about the war in Europe to promise he’ll end it within 24 hours of taking office. DeSantis, meanwhile, caused a firestorm in March by referring to the conflict as a “territorial dispute.”

Haley, by contrast, has unwaveringly stood by the Kyiv government.

“Winning in Ukraine matters so much because it will be used as a deterrent for China going [and] invading Taiwan. Right now, they’re watching everything,” she said.

Fiscal conservatism
In addition to echoing Thatcher’s call for strength abroad, Haley is also mirroring her pleas for fiscal restraint at home, a perpetual rallying cry for conservatives.

“We are $32 trillion in debt,” Haley lamented to a not-quite-full gymnasium in the ski town of North Conway.

“It would be easy for me to tell you that Biden did that to us,” she added. “Our Republicans did that to us.”

Haley is quick to recite what she considers the past fiscal sins of the GOP, such as the greenlighting of COVID-19 relief measures “without any accountability,” and touts her pre-politics life as an accountant.

Haley has not shied away from calls for entitlement reform in her pitch for restoring financial order to the country, a bone of contention for some Republicans like Trump, who has warned the congressional wing of the party not to cut “a single penny” from Social Security or Medicare.

“The main thing is she won’t lie to you,” said 82-year-old Marie Gray, a volunteer at the meet-and-greet session in Lincoln who was clad in a Haley t-shirt. “You may not like what she says, but she’ll tell you the truth.”

Like many who support Haley (or are at least intrigued by her), Gray is deeply reticent about a third consecutive Trump nomination, especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

Game plan for victory
The RealClearPolitics polling average of the 2024 Republican race shows Haley in a distant fourth place with 3.6% support — behind Trump (53%), DeSantis (20.9%) and former Vice President Mike Pence (6.1%) and just ahead of in-state rival Sen. Tim Scott (3.3%).

With almost exactly six months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Haley is running short on time to make up ground. But both the candidate and her campaign insist that she is right where she wants to be.

“This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint,” Haley stressed at the Lancaster town hall Friday. “ In July of 2015, Ted Cruz went to Iowa with 4%. In November, he had 10%. In January, he won the Iowa caucuses with 28%.”

To win the party nod, Haley is betting big on retail politics, repeatedly criss-crossing the first two voting states. Last week’s events brought her count of New Hampshire showings to 39, and made her the second Republican candidate after Vivek Ramaswamy to hit up the Granite State’s North Country — often overlooked by candidates in favor of the major cities of Manchester, Nashua and Concord along Interstate 93 north of Boston.

During these grassroots events, Haley tries to charm voters with her southern warmth and low-key demeanor.

In sharp contrast to Trump’s rhetorical carpet-bombing, and DeSantis’ take-no-prisoners culture war stances, Haley tends to pick less high-profile public fights.

“I think Republicans have gotten so used to fighting, that they’re forgetting that we win by having numbers. We don’t win by the loudest voice, we win by having more people with us than against us,” she told The Post.

Haley’s attention to less populous areas was noted by Jeb Bradley, the president of the New Hampshire state Senate and a frequent presence at many campaign events, though he has yet to endorse.

“Obviously, there’s a long ways to go here and in the national polls, but [she’s] somebody I think New Hampshire voters will look at pretty carefully,” he told The Post, praising her “positive message.”

There’s also a lot of money to raise. Haley has reached the funding benchmark to qualify for the first Republican debate in Milwaukee next month, but her campaign has yet to announce her intake for the second quarter of this year — the first full three-month period of her campaign. Trump and DeSantis laid down early markers, with the former president saying his joint fundraising committee had taken in $35 million between April 1 and June 30, while DeSantis revealed his campaign alone had raised $20 million since his late-May entry in the race.

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