Nikki Haley is a political rock star. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are a couple of golden oldies.And now that Haley seems to have found her voice, she could wind up knocking those grumpy old men right off the charts. Seriously.Haley looks like a rock star, dresses like a rock star, has rock-star charisma and heck, even her name sounds like a rock star’s. “Ladies and gentlemen, Nikki Haley and the 2024!”
In the early months of her campaign I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t getting much traction. She has a sort of Sarah Palin quality, but with brains and a bit more sophistication. Eventually it became clear that people outside political circles – and her native South Carolina – didn’t really know her. TV news snippets and three-minute interviews don’t provide much depth. For many, the two first GOP candidate debates marked her coming-out party.
Now Haley, like most campaigners introducing themselves to voters, has taken her show on the road. The beauty of the New Hampshire primary is that it provides an ideal opportunity to do that.
Last week, Haley took part in a town hall event in Exeter hosted by Seacoast Media Group and the USA TODAY Network. These are the kinds of settings where candidates can either connect with the public on a personal level or display a total inability to come across as a human being. Nikki Haley is tailor-made for such events, and that night she mentioned she had already done about 50 such gatherings in the Granite State. Which is why I think she might surprise a lot of people during the primary next year, whenever that happens.
Here are a couple of modest observations after attending the session:
First of all, never overlook the benefit of genuine Southern charm. The first time I started paying attention to Haley was during the 2016 presidential campaign, after she endorsed Marco Rubio. Trump directed a typically snarky remark at the South Carolina governor, and she responded by simply tweeting, “Bless your heart.” It was an ingeniously cute, dismissive and acidic retort.
At the Exeter event, I was surprised to see the former United Nations ambassador take the microphone in jeans and a sweater, with a big America flag on the front. But when you’re a rock star – or even a really, really cool soccer mom – you can pull off the casual look. When she began her opening remarks, I initially cringed a bit. Was she just going to offer a bunch of canned, over-rehearsed remarks like every other typical politician? But a funny thing happened. There was no other sound among the standing-room-only audience – no coughing, fidgeting or whispering − as she rattled off numbers and budget figures and statistics.
That pretty much remained the case for the rest of the evening, as Haley addressed complex issues like border security and abortion. She showed an ability to explain her stances in a comprehensible manner that didn’t sound condescending or preachy, and she held the crowd’s interest. Afterward, young people and old people alike enthusiastically lined up to meet her and she was warm and gracious with each one of them, listening intently to what they had to say.
She also demonstrated a sense of humor. “If you like what I have to say, go tell ten people,” she asked the crowd in her closing remarks.
“And if you don’t like what I have to say today – Shhhh!” she added, playfully holding her finger to her lips. “Just don’t tell anyone you were here and don’t say anything to anybody!”
One of the reasons Haley was easy to listen to is because the lady is clearly very smart. She actually seems to know what she’s talking about, whether discussing foreign affairs or domestic issues. At one point when she was describing how she balanced the budget as governor of South Carolina it occurred to me that, geez, maybe it would be a good thing to have an accountant in the White House (she earned her bachelor’s degree in the subject from Clemson University).
Combine her brains with her experience and you’ve got a pretty formidable character. You may have seen a video going viral recently of Haley, back in 2018, warning the UN that Hamas had intricate maps of Israel’s most vulnerable areas.
“Hamas maps and social media show the fastest routes to reach Israeli communities in case demonstrators make it through the security fence,” she said more than five years ago. Hamas loudspeakers were also used to encourage demonstrators to try to breach the barrier, she added. “This is what is endangering the people of Gaza.”
The terrible tragedies unleashed this month proved her to be prophetic.
Haley is the toughest candidate in the GOP presidential field, with New Jersey’s Chris Chistie – who brings sort of a Tony Soprano flavor to the campaign trail – the only other candidate who comes close. She has actually been in the tunnels beneath Gaza. She continues to pledge full-throated support of Ukraine in its effort to push back Russian invaders, even as many in her party appear ready to appease Vladimir Putin. Now she’s just as adamant in championing Israel.
Last week she described the process of overseeing the 2015 removal of the Confederate flag as governor of South Carolina, after nine Black members of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Church were slain during a prayer meeting by a white supremacist. As someone born in Kentucky, I can assure you that flag removal was as gutsy a political decision as any I can recall.
She also is not your typical Republican politician. Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, she recalled seeing her father – a turban-wearing native of India – eyed with suspicion while picking up a few items in a South Carolina shop when she was a youngster. Her husband Michael was sent off to the foster care system at the age of three and is now serving overseas as an officer in the Army National Guard while his wife runs for President of the United States. He previously served in Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure Haley would be the first commander-in-chief with a spouse serving actively in the military.
Haley is an energetic 51 years old and looks younger. She’s a unifier, not a divider. Her daughter is a pediatric nurse and her son’s a college student. And as stated in this space before, the Democrats’ worst nightmare is having her stand across the debate stage from an 81-year-old Joe Biden.
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