West Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)Nikki Haley took top billing at the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner Thursday night, decrying what she called Democrats’ “socialist” agenda and calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as she became the latest potential 2024 contender to lay her marker in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
But Haley and the other Republicans eying the White House are facing one very big hurdle: former President Donald Trump hasn’t moved on, and neither have his voters.Haley, a former South Carolina governor, made no allusion to her potential White House ambitions during her speech to the party faithful, focusing squarely on the 2022 midterm elections as she criticized President Joe Biden as “weak” on China and played up her experience collaborating with Trump as his former ambassador to the United Nations. She argued that Biden’s fiscal policy “makes Barack Obama look like a conservative” and said the administration’s efforts to extend economic Covid-19 relief have led to a deepening deficit and a labor shortage as workers choose to stay home. “It’s up to us stop socialism in its tracks,” she said. Read MoreIn another time, Haley’s speech might have served as the opening salvo for her 2024 campaign, but Trump is still casting a long shadow here. He defeated Biden by 53% to nearly 45% in the Hawkeye State in 2020, widening his margins in many of the Republican counties and the pivot counties that once supported former President Barack Obama, who won Iowa twice. In interviews this week before Haley’s arrival, many GOP voters spoke of Trump’s presidency as unfinished business. Not only were many uninterested in the candidates who would like to succeed him, but they also echoed Trump’s false assertion that the election was stolen, citing that as a reason he should run again.Lurlin Hoelscher, a 78-year-old corn and soybean farmer, still had a red Trump bracelet encircling his wrist as he waved off questions about other potential GOP candidates after a stop by The Machine Shed in Urbandale for breakfast.”He put life back into America. He took our country back from where we were going,” Hoelscher said of Trump. When asked about potential candidates like Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence — whose name sparks a striking level of vitriol here — Hoelscher said Trump was the only person who could finish “getting rid of the establishment.” He said he’d like to see someone like Haley replace Pence on a Trump 2024 ticket and excused her comments criticizing Trump’s response to January 6 by saying, “There’s more truth coming out” about the circumstances surrounding the attack on the US Capitol.Lyndal Neal, a 71-year-old former teacher from Lamoni, Iowa, shared the view that Trump should run in 2024 and replace Pence with a woman like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was on the 2008 ticket, or another female contender with “tall boots” who could withstand the heat. “He’s got to find somebody other than Pence for his running mate,” he said. “We need a strong woman who stands behind her convictions.””I like (Haley) but she doesn’t have as much backbone as she needs,” Neal said, citing what he described as her lack of “confidence” in Trump. He said he was unimpressed with Haley’s role as US ambassador to the United Nations: “Who gives a damn? You could put Attila the Hun in as an ambassador to the UN and what difference would it make?””There’s nobody to take his place,” Neal said of Trump. Haley answers questions during a press briefing at UN headquarters in 2017. Loyalty to Trump is a litmus test for GOP votersLoyalty to Trump among the candidates-in-waiting is emerging as a key litmus test as they gingerly attempt to lay the groundwork for their candidacies if the former President chooses not to run in 2024. Trump’s return to the campaign trail — with an Ohio event this weekend, a planned trip to the border and “45 Fest” and fireworks bonanza scheduled for July 3 in Sarasota, Florida — is only heightening the anticipation among average voters that he will run again.Pence rebuked Trump in his own speech in California on Thursday night, saying he will “always be proud” of his role in affirming the election results on January 6, but he laid out a largely pro-Trump platform as he too tests the waters for a possible 2024 bid. He called Trump “one of a kind,” drawing a comparison to former President Ronald Reagan.The Indiana Republican, who will appear with Pompeo and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem at a forum held by The Family Leader in Des Moines next month, is trying to navigate around the hostility from Trump’s base stemming from his refusal to acquiesce to Trump’s request to overturn the 2020 election results — a power the former vice president did not have. He was recently heckled by Trump supporters who shouted “traitor” at a conference of religious conservatives.Haley, who is 49, was one of the few leading GOP figures who managed to leave the Trump White House in 2018 with her reputation intact while still in his good graces — a feat that underscores her political talents.But her ability to win the allegiance of Trump’s base voters if she decides to run in 2024 has been complicated by her criticism of his role in the January 6 riot and his treatment of Pence. During a closed-door speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, Haley broke with Trump by stating he had been “badly wrong with his words” about the January 6 attack, adding that “his actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”Then-President Donald Trump greets UN Ambassador Nikki Haley during an event celebrating Women’s History Month at the White House in 2017. She told Politico Magazine’s Tim Alberta that she was “disgusted” by Trump’s treatment of Pence on January 6 given the then-vice president’s loyalty to him, alluding to how Trump badgered Pence to interfere in the election results and then was slow to respond when his life was in danger at the Capitol as rioters chanted about hanging him. She also predicted that Trump would “find himself further and further isolated” — which proved to be a miscalculation. Haley tried to soften her criticisms of Trump in a February 17 Wall Street Journal op-ed, and in April she said that if Trump runs again in 2024, she would support him and not launch her own White House bid.On Thursday night, she warmly shared anecdotes about how she had collaborated with Trump as the ambassador to the UN, and she praised his forcefulness on the world stage. Many GOP voters in Iowa said they had not followed Haley’s January 6 comments closely — and they were much more eager to rule out Pence as a potential successor, because of what they view as his disloyalty to Trump.”She definitely has a path,” said Kim Schmett, who chairs the Westside Conservative Club, after a meeting of its members at The Machine Shed this week. “But it’s such an abnormal year. … Clearly (Trump) is the huge question and everyone else is circling. Right now, my reading of the Iowa Republican Party is that it is massively pro-Trump.”But if Trump decides not to run, Schmett predicted, Haley would be “highly forgivable” for what she said about Trump and January 6. “Because she was very much a key part of the administration. She was very supportive.””Mike Pence, he’s got a much harder position — and yet you couldn’t have found anybody more loyal the entire four years,” Schmett said. But George Wood, an 81-year-old member of the club who recently saw Pompeo address the group, said he believes Haley has a steep challenge ahead as she tries to finesse her post-January 6 comments.”Her problem in Iowa is with Trump supporters,” Wood said. “Things linger,” he said, adding that some candidates get “beat up for what they said 40 years ago that is inconsequential in today’s world.”Wood said he was “wide open at this point,” including to the possibility of another Trump candidacy: “In my view, he did a great job for the country. He listened to the people, and we need that.” Haley hustles for local candidates In the short term, Haley is skirting questions about 2024 by stating that she is focused on reelecting GOP lawmakers in 2022 and attempting to restore a Republican majority in Congress. She has worked hard to build strong relationships over the years by offering her hand campaigning and raising money for Iowa lawmakers at both the state and federal levels.After a turbulent year of demonstrations against racial injustice in policing and Black Lives Matter protests, she has used touch points in her own life as the daughter of immigrants from India to decry “cancel culture,” stating that America is not “a racist country.” “I can’t believe the things I hear the left saying these days,” she said Thursday night. “The things they are teaching our kids, like critical race theory. It’s being taught to little kids who don’t see color.””They claim America is racist. Take it from me, the first female and minority governor of South Carolina: They are wrong,” she said to applause.Alluding to the battle over voting rights, Haley highlighted how she had been demonized when she pushed for voter ID as governor of South Carolina and suggested that as an Indian American woman, she is offended when Democrats argue that voter ID laws make it harder for minorities to vote.”It is wrong when Democrats say that minorities are incapable of going to the DMV and getting a picture ID. We are perfectly capable of getting a picture ID in the DMV,” Haley said. “We’re perfectly capable of picking the school our kids should go to. We are perfectly capable of doing all things when we have the opportunities in front of us. It is racist when the Democrats say that, and we should call them out every single time.”As governor of South Carolina, Haley receives applause after signing a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state house grounds in 2015. Earlier this year, Haley announced her new political action committee, Stand for America, to focus on electing what she described as a “conservative force” to Congress that would stand as a “bulwark against the liberal agendas of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.”Haley campaigned in 2020 for Iowa’s Sen. Joni Ernst, as well as Rep. Ashley Hinson — who defeated Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District — and GOP Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who won the open seat in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. She is resuming those efforts this week, raising money for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, Miller-Meeks, Rep. Randy Feenstra and Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley. She held a roundtable Thursday with female legislators and other women interested in running for office with Republican Party of Iowa co-chair Linda Upmeyer, and will address Iowa’s Young Republicans on Friday.Nationally, Haley has focused on shoring up the prospects of female officeholders in swing districts, noting that she wants to help maintain the gains that made 2020 the “year of the Republican woman.” The thing she loves most about Iowa, she said Thursday, is that the state “loves to elect badass Republican women.” David Kochel, a long time Iowa GOP strategist, pointed to the assets that Haley would bring to a future White House bid, noting that “Iowa Republicans and a lot of independent voters and Democrats value strong accomplished women in politics.” “There’s no doubt, particularly in places where Republicans have struggled in the past few cycles in the suburbs, good women candidates have a high upside,” he said. “She was a successful governor, she has foreign policy experience and she had a very successful run in the Trump administration — all those things are to her credit.”Haley’s challenge in the coming months and years will be whether she can get Iowa’s GOP voters to pay attention to those aspects of her biography as she and others try to get them focused on what the future might look like beyond Trump.As she wrapped up her remarks Thursday, Haley argued that “Republicans are too nice” and that they keep getting “steamrolled and then whine and complain about it.””The days of being nice should be over,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we have to be disrespectful. I wear heels — it’s not for a fashion statement. I use it for kicking. But I always kick with a smile. We have to fight for America’s promise.”
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