From her public statements of grief to removing the Confederate battle flag from outside her Statehouse office, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has drawn wide praise since the massacre of nine black churchgoers from a historic congregation in the city of Charleston.
Now the 43-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants, Nikki Haley looks to her next role as the self-described host of a key early presidential primary. The national attention is feeding chatter about her potential as a presidential running mate and as a voice for a Republican Party that needs more votes from women and minorities.
Just how prominent she remains in 2016, though, depends on factors well beyond this latest chapter in Haley’s intense, complicated rise from state representative to her tenure as South Carolina’s first female and minority governor, a five-year stretch that has rankled many of her fellow Republicans.
”There are sometimes events in an elected official’s life that transcend politics, and this certainly was one for Gov. Haley,” said Ted Newton, who helped lead the research team that vetted vice presidential prospects for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
Newton praised Haley’s ”skill and grace” in recent weeks. Yet, he said, ”The fact that she’s in the headlines briefly doesn’t guarantee anything. If she stays on a short-list (for vice president), it will be because she survives more intense scrutiny.”
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was campaigning Wednesday in South Carolina for the first time since formally launching his bid, the first out-of-state Republican candidate to visit since the Confederate battle flag came down Friday.
According to her aides, Haley has met in recent months with Walker, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and her hometown senior Senator Lindsey Graham, fully 10 of the GOP’s 15 prominent declared candidates.
Haley refuses to discuss the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the context of her future, and she maintains that her change of heart on the battle flag – she had steadfastly sidestepped questions about the banner despite longstanding calls for its removal – was not a political calculation.
Some who support flying the flag say the symbol represents Southern heritage and pride in Civil War-era leaders, but others have argued the flag is a divisive symbol and white supremacy is at the heart of the heritage it celebrates. The debate took on added resonance after the shootings, which are being investigated as a hate crime. Dylann Storm Roof, the white man charged in the killings, was photographed with the flag several times.
”If people are talking about that, then I’m not working hard enough to talk about the (Emanuel) families,” Haley said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. ”I don’t want to think about it or talk about it or even acknowledge it at this point.”
Haley first garnered national attention in 2010, when she won a bruising Republican primary and a competitive general election.
She has sought to define her administration on job creation, primarily through the decisions by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Boeing and a host of tire makers to establish or expand plants in South Carolina. But she’s also had to fend off ethics complaints and routinely battles with her fellow Republicans in the Legislature on tax and budget issues.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, who has aligned with Haley in her fiscal fights, said the governor faces ”jealousy” in the Republican-controlled state. But he said presidential candidates should take note of the governing skill she demonstrated in cajoling lawmakers to remove the battle flag.
”To get 170 politicians to come along with her was a tough task,” Quinn said, adding, ”She did a lot more than just go have press conferences. She brought us in. … She showed that she’s more than just a talking head or a mouthpiece.”