INDIAN LAND, S.C. — Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., wanted a show of hands. Who watched the first Republican presidential debate last week?
Nearly all of the more than 1,000 attendees here to see former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday afternoon quickly shot their arms up. They liked what they had heard from Haley in Milwaukee. And they wanted to hear more.
“People didn’t know for sure before,” Ann Mathers, a voter from Indian Land, said of her friends’ and neighbors’ views of whom to support in the presidential primary ahead of the debate. “But of all the candidates, they liked her the best because she was not afraid to speak out about the issues. She wasn’t the person who was there trying to become the next vice president by not saying anything negative about the former [president].”
“I mean, I’m in the same camp,” she added. “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to make sure that what I was thinking before is real. And after hearing her [today], I think she’s real.”
After campaigning for months with stagnant poll numbers and little press coverage, Haley is finally having something of a moment. She was widely seen as having one of the strongest performances in Milwaukee — a debate allies were long hoping would spark interest in her bid. Her campaign said it raised $1 million in the three days following the debate. Public polls as well as surveys conducted by allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump show her rising in Iowa and nationally, though she still trails Trump by significant margins.
How Haley can maintain the newfound momentum will be key. In several conversations, campaign officials and allies said the plan for now is to continue executing on the strategy they’ve put together for months, which includes frequent trips to early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while spending conservatively on overhead and staffing. Meanwhile, Stand For America, Inc., the pro-Haley super PAC, is up on the air in early states through the end of September.
“We will continue to increase our volume as we go,” Mark Harris, the group’s lead strategist, said. “We have a plan. And we’re sticking to that plan.”
For some time, that plan has been tied closely to the first debate. On stage, Haley, the lone female candidate in the GOP field, went head-to-head with several of her challengers while seeking to show herself as willing to tell truths that may be uncomfortable for some parts of the Republican base.
Of the rising national debt, Haley said “the truth is” it’s not merely a result of Democratic spending, but also of Republicans passing trillions in Covid relief. On a federal abortion ban — similar to one she signed at the state level as governor — Haley called on Republicans to “be honest with the American people,” arguing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate makes it virtually impossible to enact federal abortion policy. On Trump, she said Republicans “have to face the fact” that the former president “is the most disliked politician in America” — though she said she would still support him as the nominee should he win the primary and get convicted in any of the four jurisdictions he has been indicted in.
But the moment she has sought the most mileage out of was a contentious back-and-forth with 38-year-old businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, himself a rising candidate in the GOP field, on foreign affairs. Haley pointedly told Ramaswamy that his agenda “will make America less safe.”
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said, drawing applause from the crowd.
In the days that followed, Haley has continued to hit back at Ramaswamy both on the trail and in interviews. She ripped “childish name games” in a Fox News interview after Ramaswamy’s campaign referred to her by her first and maiden name, Nimarata Randhawa, in a post on his website. She released a statement hitting back at comments Ramaswamy made in an interview this week about Iran and Israel.
And at her event on Monday, she deployed a southern phrase of derision — “bless his heart” — before condemning his foreign policy platform. (Ramaswamy has called for ceding territory taken by Russia in Ukraine and for the U.S. to “remain supportive of Israel” but not commit to “put our own men and women on the line in a war with Iran.”)
“If you say something that is totally off the wall, I’m going to call you out on it,” she said at the Monday event. “Every single time.”
Dave Gatton, a voter from Indian Head in attendance Monday, who said he would be voting for Haley, said the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was able to show Ramaswamy’s “inexperience” onstage while reminding viewers of her own foreign policy chops.
“Obviously, he’s a good businessman,” Gatton said. “But I think it was very obvious when it comes to politics and the national stage and international affairs, he can’t hold a candle to Nikki Haley.”
Iowa state Rep. Austin Harris, a Haley backer, said her debate performance has led to his phone buzzing virtually nonstop, with folks wanting to “help in some way, shape or form.”
“The response on the ground has really been something I haven’t ever really seen,” he said. “There was always kind of this attitude that she was running to be Trump’s vice president or she’s running just to keep her name in the headlines for the next four years, something like that. Where she really came out there says, ‘No, I’m running to be the commander in chief starting in 2025.’ And I think that kind of boldness in the introduction that she gave really stuck out.”
But the momentum Haley has generated still has her about as far behind Trump in both state and national surveys, as are many of her leading non-Trump rivals. And other campaigns don’t seem too worried about her yet.
“She did a good job at selling her product,” a South Carolina operative working for a rival campaign said. “I just don’t know who’s buying. I just don’t know how that gets her traction on anything.”
Another aide to a separate rival campaign said Haley, even more so than other candidates, built her candidacy on doing well on the debate stage.
“Her whole campaign was built on debates, so they have to have good ones,” this person said. “That’s their strategy, and it appears they’re sticking to it.”
And Haley has experience coming from far behind to win primaries. During her first run for the state Legislature in 2004, she unseated a longtime incumbent after entering the race with little fanfare. In her 2010 gubernatorial run, she emerged from a deep field of contenders much more well-known than she was at the time.
But as is the case for many running in the primary, the Trump factor has her in an awkward spot. After condemning the candidate during the 2016 primary, she went to work in his administration and praised his efforts. Though she said she would not run against him if he opted to jump into the 2024 race, she decided to get in anyway.
Even now, she’s trying to find a middle ground on Trump — casting him as someone who has little chance to win in a general election but someone worthy of her support should he win the primary, no matter what happens to him in court.
At her Monday event, she was asked about the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement — which she said was akin to actions taken against political opponents by governments in African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
“We’ve got to clean house in our intelligence agencies, we’ve got to clean house in our Department of Justice,” she said. “But the reality is you don’t do it with the person that’s at the center of attention. You don’t do it with the person that’s got the four or five or six cases against him. You make sure it’s cleaned up. But you don’t go with someone who’s going to be in a courtroom longer than they’re going to be campaigning.”
Pointing to the debate stage, Harris, the Iowa state representative, said Haley was the only candidate who wasn’t trying to echo Trump or become the anti-Trump front-runner, seeking to create “a new path” in the party.
But is it possible to occupy a middle ground when it comes to the former president?
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” he said. “It’s worth a shot.”