The Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley ventured on to Donald Trump’s stomping grounds on Friday, seeking support from rank-and-file Republicans who are “tired of losing”.
In remarks to a half-full ballroom at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Haley presented herself as the face of a “new generation” of Republican leaders, making her pitch to a crowd still overwhelmingly loyal to Trump, her 76-year-old former boss and rival for the party’s nomination..
“We’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections,” Haley said, an implicit acknowledgment of Trump’s 2020 defeat that many in attendance refuse to accept.
“Our cause is right,” she continued. “But we have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans. That ends now.”
Haley highlighted her conservative victories as governor of South Carolina and UN ambassador during the Trump administration, vowing as president to “renew an America that’s strong and proud – not weak and woke”.
Playing to the audience of conservative activists, Haley spent much of her speech condemning the subjects that dominate outrage on the right: Joe Biden, socialism and the media.
“In case you didn’t notice, the liberal media’s heads are exploding about my run for president,” she said of being a conservative woman of color. “I am proof that liberals are wrong about everything they say about America.”
One of the Republican’s loudest applause lines was when Haley, after describing herself as the “first minority female governor in history”, declared: “America is not a racist country!”
She also doubled down on her call to subject all politicians over the age of 75 to a mental competency test, careful to aim the attack at Biden, who is 80. But the requirement would also apply to Trump.
Haley lashed out at CNN’s Don Lemon, who said, in response to her call for such assessments, that the 51-year-old Republican was past her “prime”. Lemon was temporarily taken off air and later expressed regret for the comment. (Haley’s campaign is selling beer koozies that say “Past my prime?” and “Hold my beer”.)
After finishing her speech, Haley waded into a crowd of supporters gathered in the main hall of the venue. As she posed for photos, some attendees heckled her, shouting, “We love Trump” and “Rino”, a derogatory label for Republican politicians viewed as insufficiently conservative. It stands for “Republican in name only”.
Haley never mentioned Trump by name in her speech, and has been careful to avoid direct criticism of him since launching her bid for president. In a recent interview, she pledged to support Trump if he were to win the nomination.
Haley was the first major Republican candidate to challenge him for the party’s nomination. But she was not the only potential aspirant to speak at the conservative gathering.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech multimillionaire and author who announced his candidacy for president, was also scheduled to speak at the conference following another 2024 hopeful, Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
Trump will headline the event with an hour-long speech on Saturday evening.
Once a magnet for Republican rising stars, CPAC will not hear from several possible 2024 hopefuls this year. The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to announce a run for president in the coming months, skipped the conservative conference and spoke instead at a dueling event hosted by the conservative Club For Growth in Florida this weekend.
Also absent were potential presidential aspirants former vice-president Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem.
Public opinion surveys underscore the challenging road ahead for Haley. She trails far behind Trump, who remains the clear frontrunner, and DeSantis, hovering at around 5%, according to a RealClearPolitics polling average.
That enduring affection for the former president was on full display at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, underscoring the challenge his rivals face as they vie for the nomination.
Attendees wearing “Trump 2024” hats and “Trump was right” T-shirts posed for pictures in a replica Oval Office. “Trump’s rump” was bedazzled on the back of one woman’s jeans. And the former president is all but certain to win the unscientific presidential straw poll of CPAC attendees, as he did last year.
“I made up my mind on November 3, 2020 and haven’t changed it since,” said Donna Shannen of Pennsylvania, who was attending her first CPAC along with Dawn Bancroft. Both derided Haley as a “traitor” for condemning Trump’s role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
They said Haley’s later attempts to soften those comments were a sign of “weakness” and hypocrisy. Shannen said she would prefer Haley directly challenge Trump, rather than try to have it both ways with veiled criticism and overt praise.
“If she can’t even attack her own opponents in her own party, how is she going to attack Kim Jong-un or Xi Jinping?” she said.
Haley did resonate with some attendees. Leaving the ballroom after her remarks, several young women said they were inspired by her message, her foreign policy experience – and the possibility of electing the first female president.
“I think she is a way better candidate than Trump would be. I don’t think he can win,” said Ashleigh Dyson, a college student at St Mary’s College of Maryland, who said it was “crazy” that the US had never sent a woman to the White House.
Carolyn Wilson, also a student at St Mary’s, said she believed Haley could win over independent and swing voters who recoiled from the Republican party during Trump’s presidency. She added that being a woman would probably help Haley navigate a bare-knuckled primary race.
“She’s used to that pushback,” Wilson said, noting that there was a man who loudly booed Haley during her remarks at CPAC. “She didn’t even bat an eye!”