Nikki Haley’s leap into the 2024 presidential campaign this week included a nod to the historic nature of her candidacy, as a woman of color and the child of immigrants making a White House run as a Republican.
But beyond biography, the former South Carolina governor’s entry to the race on Tuesday underscored how difficult it will be for many Republican candidates to persuade the party’s base that they should bear the standard for the G.O.P., not former President Donald J. Trump, who maintains the loyalties of so many voters.
Ms. Haley’s announcement, which she will repeat on Wednesday morning at an event in Charleston, S.C., seemed like a calculated appeal to Republican voters who are ready to turn the page from the Trump era without burning the book of Mr. Trump’s presidency. She reminded voters that the Republican Party had lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections and said it was “time for a new generation of leadership,” both signs that she will call for a fresh start in the 2024 Republican primaries.
But she never mentioned Mr. Trump by name, much less leveled any direct criticism at the only other major candidate in the presidential race.
Ms. Haley’s conundrum about how to approach Mr. Trump will surely apply to other potential competitors. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who shares Mr. Trump’s pugnacious instincts and is the only Republican within striking distance in early polls of the field, has nevertheless been reluctant to trade insult for insult with the former president. Like Ms. Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence served in the Trump administration. Overt critics of Mr. Trump, like Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Larry Hogan of Maryland, both former governors, risk not being taken seriously by Republican voters.
Ms. Haley has time to devise a strategy for challenging Mr. Trump, but moving on from the last Republican presidency will be tricky, said Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican consultant in South Carolina and a critic of Mr. Trump. Since leaving his administration in 2018 and making halting efforts to criticize him after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Ms. Haley has tacked back into his orbit.
The Run-Up to the 2024 Election
The jockeying for the next presidential race is already underway.
- G.O.P. Field: Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, has officially entered the 2024 race. It’s the first major Republican challenge to Donald J. Trump, but unlikely to be the last.
- DeSantis’s Challenge: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has pursued a strategy of conflict avoidance with Mr. Trump in the shadow G.O.P. primary. But if he runs for president as expected, a clash is inevitable.
- What the Polling Says: Mr. DeSantis is no Scott Walker, writes Nate Cohn. The Florida governor’s support among Republicans at this early stage of the primary cycle puts him in rare company.
- Harris’s Struggles: With President Biden appearing all but certain to run again, concerns are growing over whether Kamala Harris, who is trying to define her vice presidency, will be a liability for the ticket.
“She’s got a pretty bad tightrope to walk,” Mr. Felkel said.
In fact, her arrival in the Republican primary — and the expected entry of another South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott, as well as of Mr. Hutchinson, who is leaning hard on his degree from the state’s evangelical conservative Bob Jones University — could make it easier for Mr. Trump to win the state, by dividing Republican voters who want to move past him.
“They are fighting over non-Trump conservatives who’d like to see the party win elections and who are tired of the chaos,” Mr. Felkel said. “I’m not sure in South Carolina that’s a majority.”
Difficulties lie ahead for candidates who choose not to take on Mr. Trump directly — particularly those, like Ms. Haley, who appear inclined to avoid saying his name — in hopes that they can create distance from him without going too far in the eyes of Republican voters. And if Mr. DeSantis can consolidate a bloc of voters, it remains to be seen whether the other rivals can make an affirmative case for their own candidacies beyond hoping Mr. DeSantis struggles.
Even Ms. Haley’s résumé seemed like a credential to tread on lightly. In her announcement on Tuesday, she pointed to her experiences in the governor’s mansion in Columbia, S.C., and to her time as Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. But she was light on listing accomplishments to burnish a claim to the highest elective office in the land.
Her most notable achievement as governor, the delicate compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House, went unmentioned altogether, though the tragedy that instigated it — a massacre of Black parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist — was invoked as a call to return the nation to religion.
“We turned away from fear toward God and the values that still make our country the freest and greatest in the world,” she said. “We must turn in that direction again.”
Still, Ms. Haley’s biggest advantage will be her deep connections in the state, the third to vote in the primary season next year. Retail politics and local organization matter in South Carolina, and regardless of the results in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, its results have a track record. Victory in the state propelled Joseph R. Biden Jr. to the Democratic nomination in 2020 and vaulted George W. Bush ahead of John McCain in the 2000 election.
Chad Connelly, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said that Ms. Haley remained “wildly popular” in the state, but that so did Mr. Trump, Mr. Scott and Mr. DeSantis — an unpredictable situation that he said he had not seen in his 25 years in South Carolina Republican politics. But Mr. Trump has never paid attention to organization, and Mr. DeSantis has little connection to the state.
“People expect retail politics here,” Mr. Connelly said. “People expect you to meet them at Bill and Fran’s in Newberry for waffles.”
For now, Mr. Trump has refrained from taunting, mocking or attacking Ms. Haley. Republican officials in South Carolina said that could be a sign that he is listening to consultants who are pleading with him not to assail a Republican woman of color, or that he is simply not viewing her as a serious threat.
It could also mean that both candidates are sizing each other up as running mates, Mr. Felkel said. In 2016, Mr. Pence, then Indiana’s governor, helped shore up Mr. Trump’s appeal with conservative evangelical Christians, who had been leery of him. In 2024, with many of those voters still loyal to Mr. Trump, Ms. Haley might help Mr. Trump with perhaps his biggest weakness, suburban Republican women.
Ms. Haley’s announcement video leaned heavily into her roots as the child of Indian immigrants, “not Black, not white, but different.” But she also emphasized that she had been taught to accentuate what Americans have in common, not what separates them, a reassuring message for the white voters who dominate the Republican Party.
And she took pointed swipes at movements that emphasize the country’s racist past, including The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which traced Black American history to the first year enslaved Africans reached North American shores.
In doing so, she signaled that her family’s immigrant roots would not impede her entry to the social policy and culture wars that have been central to the appeal of Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis.
But vying for vice president would be difficult for Ms. Haley, South Carolina Republicans said, because the state’s primary comes so early. She will have to signal that she is in it to win it, Mr. Felkel said, and that might mean she will eventually have to go on the attack against her former boss.
An adviser to Mr. Scott, who insisted on anonymity to discuss preliminary campaign preparations, said that because Ms. Haley worked for Mr. Trump, she would have a harder time separating herself from him. While Mr. Scott can fly above the fray, the adviser said, Ms. Haley will be under more pressure to confront the former president head-on.
“It’s going to be one of the most fascinating things to watch that I’ve ever seen in politics,” Mr. Connelly said.
Like Mr. Scott, Ms. Haley is projecting a more optimistic message than Mr. Trump’s often apocalyptic description of the United States. But whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
“The challenge for this field is to tell the truth,” said Chris Christie, a Republican former governor of New Jersey and a potential candidate for president who has been vocally critical of Mr. Trump since breaking with him at the end of his presidency. “And it’s to tell the truth about everything — to tell the truth about your plans for the country, and to tell the truth about what has happened over the last number of years with Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”
If people are “unwilling to tell all of it,” he said, “it’s unlikely you’ll have credibility on any of it.”