Nikki Haley makes her case to a Republican Party that no longer exists © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Campaign signs for Republican presidential candidates former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and former U.S. President Donald Trump stand along an intersection in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, U.S., February 22, 2024. REUTE

By Gram Slattery

GREER, South Carolina (Reuters) – Nikki Haley is pledging on the campaign trail to stand up to Russian aggression in eastern Europe, reform social security, keep trade barriers low and slash the deficit if she pulls off an upset win in the Republican presidential nominating contest.

She persists despite repeated public opinion polls showing that many of today’s Republican voters aren’t interested in the policies she is advocating for.

Before former President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Republicans were dogged advocates of free markets, foreign intervention and a smaller state. Trump flipped the script when he came to power promising to levy expansive tariffs on trading partners and withdraw from foreign entanglements.

On the trail, analysts and allies say, Haley is appealing not just to “anti-Trump” Republicans – but also to “pre-Trump” Republicans, who prefer policies that were more common before the former president came onto the scene.

That dynamic has been on display this week as Haley has crisscrossed South Carolina ahead of the state’s crucial Feb. 24 primary, which she is expected to lose.

At event after event, Haley heaped praise on NATO allies and gamed out how Russia might attack additional European nations, starting with Poland and the Baltic states, if America stops sending weaponry to Ukraine.

She also criticized profligate spending by both major parties, lamenting that America is paying more to service its debt than on defense. And, in a line she has added to her stump speech in recent weeks, she has slammed Trump for floating a universal tariff, even as trade barriers have proven broadly popular among voters.

“Why don’t you ask him why he’s now proposed another tax increase on every American family, by saying he’s going to put tariffs on everything?” Haley asked a packed house in the town of Greer on Monday.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said Haley was running in the mold of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. It was the standard path, he said, before Trump came to power.

Both Republican former presidents were known for their robust, even bellicose, foreign policy ideas, and both were advocates for market liberalization.

“Judging by the primary so far,” Conant said, “there’s not much of an appetite for it.”

Some 52% of Republicans said in a July Reuters/Ipsos poll they were less likely to support a candidate who favors increased military aid to Ukraine. While polling on tariffs is sporadic, most surveys show that Republicans are broadly supportive of hiking import duties.

Haley’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Rob Godfrey, who served as a high-ranking Haley aide when she was governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017, noted that her policy preferences mirror those of her core group of supporters.

“The coalition that the Haley campaign seems to have put together does seem to be in part made up of Republicans that hold more traditional views on domestic and foreign policy,” he said.


At a Fox News town hall on Tuesday in South Carolina, Trump did not discuss the budget deficit. Asked about the possibility of Ukraine losing to Russia because it had insufficient weaponry, Trump responded that he felt “badly.”

He brought up tariffs eight times, saying trade protection had proven to be a powerful tool during his administration. He never mentioned social security, even as Haley argued on the trail this week that the benefit program for retirees must be reformed to ensure its solvency.

Haley’s team, meanwhile, is leaning into the Republican politics of yesteryear.

Some of the shirts her campaign is hawking on the trail feature a logo that is functionally identical to that of Reagan’s 1984 re-election bid, which the Republican won in a landslide.

Another Haley shirt features a quote from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who led the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and oversaw a dramatic liberalization of the country’s economy.

In dozens of conversations with Republicans in South Carolina over the last week, none brought up fiscal discipline or America’s ballooning budget deficit as core concerns.

Some attendees at Haley events this week said they liked her in part because she was willing to support traditional Republican policies that have fallen out of favor.

William Llewellyn, a former army sniper, said at the event in Greer he was disgusted by what he perceives as Trump’s reticence to support Ukraine, and he believes Haley would be a steadier foreign policy hand.

“We haven’t exactly been on friendly terms with Russia, then we have this president who’s really buddy buddy, shaking hands and everything,” he said.

Still, some undecided voters at Haley’s events said they largely agreed with Trump on foreign policy and trade.

Doug Sobey, who is leaning toward Trump but attended a Haley event earlier this week, said he broadly agrees with Trump’s contention that Europe’s NATO countries, not America, need to step up their defense spending to take on Russia.

“His philosophy of America First was true and real and supported by his actions,” he said.


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