INDIAN COUNTRY, SC – Rep. Ralph Norman, RS.C., wild show of hands. Who watched the first Republican presidential debate last week?
Nearly all of the more than 1,000 attendees who attended former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley on Monday afternoon quickly raised their arms. They liked what they heard from Haley in Milwaukee. And they wanted to hear more.
“People weren’t sure before,” said Ann Mathers, a voter from Indian Land, of her friends’ and neighbors’ opinions on who to support in the presidential primaries leading up to the debate. “But of all the candidates, they liked her the most because she wasn’t afraid to speak out on the issues. She wasn’t the person there trying to become the next vice president by not saying anything negative about the first one [president].”
“I mean, I’m in the same camp,” she added. “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to make sure what I thought before is real. And after I heard her [today]I think she’s real.’
After months of campaigning with stagnant polls and little press coverage, Haley finally has a moment. She was widely believed to have one of the strongest performances in Milwaukee — a debate long hoped allies would generate interest in her bid. Her campaign said it raised $1 million in the three days following the debate. Public opinion polls and surveys conducted by allies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump show that she is on the rise both in Iowa and nationally, though still trailing Trump by significant margins.
How Haley can maintain the new momentum will be critical. In several conversations, campaign officials and allies said the plan for now is to continue executing the strategy they’ve been laying out for months, which includes frequent trips to the states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina voting early while spending conservatively in overhead and budget costs. staffing. Meanwhile, Stand For America, Inc., the pro-Haley super PAC, is on the air in the early states until the end of September.
“We will continue to increase our volume over time,” said Mark Harris, the group’s chief strategist. “We have a plan. And we are sticking to that plan.”
That plan has been closely linked to the first debate for some time. On stage, Haley, the Republican Party’s lone female nominee, battled some of her challengers as she tried to demonstrate her willingness to tell truths that may be uncomfortable for some segments of the Republican base. are.
Haley said the rising national debt “is the truth” that it’s not just a result of Democratic spending, but also the fact that Republicans are passing trillions in Covid aid. On a federal abortion ban — similar to the one she signed at the state level as governor — Haley called on Republicans to “be honest with the American people,” arguing that the 60-vote threshold in the Senate makes it virtually impossible to federal abortion policy. . Of Trump, she said Republicans “have to face the fact” that the former president is “America’s most hated politician” — though she said she would still support him as a candidate if he won the primary and were convicted be in one of the elections. four jurisdictions in which he has been charged.
But the moment she tried to get the most out of herself was a controversial conversation with 38-year-old businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, himself an up-and-coming Republican Party candidate, about foreign affairs. Haley emphatically told Ramaswamy that his agenda will “make America less safe.”
“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” she said, receiving applause from the crowd.
In the days that followed, Haley continued to attack Ramaswamy, both on the road 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 backing down on comments Ramaswamy made this week in an interview about Iran and Israel.
And at her Monday event, she used a Southern mocking phrase — “bless his heart” — before condemning his foreign policy platform. (Ramaswamy has called for the ceding of Russian-held territory in Ukraine and the US to “continue supporting Israel” but not committing “to risking our own men and women in a war with Iran.” )
“If you say something that’s totally wrong, I’ll call you out on it,” she said at Monday’s event. “Every time.”
Dave Gatton, an Indian Head voter who said Monday he would vote for Haley, said the former US ambassador to the United Nations was able to showcase Ramaswamy’s “inexperience” on stage while reminding viewers of its own foreign policy.
“Obviously he’s a good businessman,” Gatton said. “But I think it was very clear when it comes to politics, the national scene and international affairs that he can’t match Nikki Haley.”
Austin Harris, an Iowa State Haley financier, said her debate performance has left his phone buzzing virtually non-stop, with people “wanting to help in some way.”
“The reaction on the ground is really something I’ve never really seen,” he said. “There was always this kind of attitude that she was running to be Trump’s vice president, or that she was running to keep her name in the headlines for the next four years, something like that. Where she really came out says, “No, I want to be commander-in-chief from 2025.” And I think that kind of boldness in the introduction she gave really stood out.
But the momentum Haley has generated still leaves her about as far behind Trump in both state and national investigations as many of her main non-Trump rivals. And other campaigns don’t seem too concerned about her just yet.
“She sold her product well,” said a South Carolina employee who worked for a rival campaign. “I just don’t know who’s buying. I just don’t know how that could give her a grip on anything.’
Another aide from a separate rival campaign said Haley, more than other candidates, built her candidacy on performing well on the debate stage.
“Her whole campaign was based on debates, so they must have good debates,” this person said. “That’s their strategy and it looks like they’re sticking to it.”
And Haley has experience coming from way behind to win primaries. In her first run for the state legislature in 2004, she unseated a longtime incumbent president after entering the race with little fanfare. During her 2010 gubernatorial run, she emerged from a deep field of contenders far better known than she was at the time.
But as is the case for many running in the primaries, the Trump factor puts her in an awkward place. After condemning the candidate in the 2016 primary, she went to work in his administration and praised his efforts. Although she said she would not compete against him if he chose to enter the 2024 race, she decided to enter anyway.
Even now she’s trying to strike a middle ground for Trump, portraying him as someone who has little chance of winning in the general election, but who is worthy of her support if he wins the primaries, no matter what happens to him in the court.
At her event on Monday, she was asked about the “arming” of federal law enforcement — which she said was akin to actions against political opponents by governments in African countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
“We need to clean up at our intelligence agencies, we need to clean up at our Justice Department,” she said. “But the reality is you don’t do it with the person who is the center of attention. You don’t do it with the person who has four, five, or six cases against them. You make sure it’s cleaned up. But you don’t go with someone who is in court longer than he or she is going to campaign.”
Harris, the Iowa State Representative, pointed to the debate stage, saying Haley was the only candidate not trying to follow Trump or become the anti-Trump frontrunner, but trying to create “a new path” in the party.
But is it possible to strike 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 try.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com