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Close but no cigar for Nikki Haley

Former South Carolina governor is last Trump challenger standing, but for how long?

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, center, at her 2017 confirmation hearing to be ambassador to the United Nations with two others who have run against Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, South Carolina Sens. Tim Scott, left, and Lindsey Graham.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, center, at her 2017 confirmation hearing to be ambassador to the United Nations with two others who have run against Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, South Carolina Sens. Tim Scott, left, and Lindsey Graham.

My Feb. 6 column last year about Nikki Haley didn’t predict that the 2024 GOP nominating contest would come down to Haley and former president Donald J. Trump. But I did write that, “I expect she will be an energetic and talented campaigner.”

In fact, Haley has done more than that.

She outlasted plenty of other hopefuls, from South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to former Vice President Mike Pence and, as of Sunday afternoon, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Haley is the last contender not named Trump.

No, Haley isn’t likely to overtake the former president for her party’s nomination, but she has performed well, as I expected.

Of course, I’ve been disappointed that Haley has tried to have it both ways on Trump. She has been slow to take him on, and when she did, the most she has said is that chaos “follows” the former president, as if he was the victim. In fact, the former president created most of the chaos.

But I think I was correct when I wrote, “It’s a mistake to view Haley as a ‘Larry Hogan’ Republican.” “She isn’t a moderate running in the ‘moderate lane,” I insisted in the column.

In fact, I noted that during a 2009 interview she described herself to me as a “hard core conservative who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, the Club for Growth, and the South Carolina Family Association.”

“Her self-identification was interesting,” I wrote, adding, “Many people assumed that Haley was — and is — a pragmatist. Maybe that is simply because she is a woman of color or because she is so poised. But if you look at her positions when she was in the South Carolina House, she indeed was a ‘hard-core conservative’ on issues like taxes, immigration and abortion. That is why she was endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian group.”

During her presidential run, Haley has tried to be more inclusive, positioning herself as a big tent Republican. But she has never moved left on red meat political issues.

During my 2009 interview, Haley also talked about her campaign skills. This is how she described herself to me: “I’m a fundraising machine. I love to raise money, You can’t out-campaign me. I know my issues.”

Few politicians relish fundraising, so Haley’s statement got my attention. In fact, she has turned out to be a fundraising machine.

On the stump, the former South Carolina governor has better skills than most politicians. But here and there she has stumbled badly — most often because she has tried to be too cute by half.

Her comment that the United States has never been a racist country was absurd, playing to Trumpers and conservatives who prefer to forget about the history of injustice in this country.

And her decision not to mention slavery as the cause of the Civil War was ridiculous and offensive. Haley knows American history, and as governor she was in the middle of a fight over the Confederate flag and statues.

Then there is her promise to bring the country together by pardoning Trump. How ridiculous. A pardon would not unite the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it would throw gasoline on a fire, undermining the idea that everyone is equal under the law.

In the end — which could occur Tuesday night or shortly thereafter — Haley simply could not overcome Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party. A surprise (and unlikely) Haley win on Tuesday would only delay the inevitable.

The GOP’s rank and file simply likes Trump. They like his combativeness, his willingness to take on the establishment, and his message about immigration and the southern border.

Yes, some Republicans are embarrassed by Trump’s behavior, but their numbers have not been large enough to give an opening to Haley, DeSantis or anyone else.

Haley has done about as well as possible, but she was never able to weaken Trump’s hold on the nomination. In fact, she never really took Trump on, possibly because she still hopes to be in the mix as a possible running mate.

I don’t know whether there will be a second or third act for Haley. But my 2009 interview with her helped me understand who she was and what her prospects were.

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