NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley returned to her home state Friday evening as she sought to build momentum for her campaign following a confident performance at the party's first debate.
Supporters sipped ales and shandies in the Porter Room at Holy City Brewing as Sweet’s “Fox on The Run” slyly piped from the loudspeakers. U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman emceed the evening, reminding the Lowcountry residents that the Republican candidate was mockingly called “Nikki Who?” in 2004 before she upset a 30-year incumbent for a House seat in Lexington County. She won the governorship after a runoff in 2010 and held the seat until 2017, when she was appointed the United Nations ambassador.
She’s never lost a political contest, Norman said.
“She is Margaret Thatcher with an iron fist and a velvet glove,” he said.
Hundreds of leagues away, Hurricane Lee lumbered across the Atlantic Ocean. The Category 5 storm reached near historic winds Friday as it steered an uncertain path toward the Southeastern Coast. It was too early to worry — forecasts had the storm turning away from land — but decades-old memories of Hurricane Hugo’s destructive force linger in the Lowcountry.
Haley is no stranger to foul weather. As South Carolina’s governor, she ordered area residents to evacuate in 2016 as Hurricane Matthew barreled toward the Carolina coasts. Some questioned the decision at the time, but it proved wise after the Category 1 storm unleashed destructive floods in the state, killing four residents and causing more than $700 million in damages.
Donald Trump was elected president the next month and Haley has navigated the political tempest of his ascent with similar caution — sometimes to her detriment. Haley was praised for her poise and authority at the first Republican debate in Milwaukee, where she nimbly skewered her opponents on federal spending, abortion and foreign policy. She told Fox News her campaign raised $1 million in the days after the event and she’s enjoyed a modest bump in the polls as she seeks to build momentum for the primaries in Iowa and South Carolina.
Some see a path forward for the pragmatic daughter of Indian immigrants, but critics say Haley’s caution turned into cowardice during the Trump era. She abandoned her principles and excused the former president’s worst behavior to appease the party’s conservative base, critics argued.
Norman emphasized the candidate’s authenticity in his introduction.
“I’ve listened to a lot of debates,” the representative said. “And as I listened — other than Nikki, all the others had the cliches they memorized and it was rehearsed.”
Haley took the stage to applause and cheers before she launched into her stump speech. She crowed about the state’s success bringing in new businesses and residents during her time as governor. Hands shot up across the room when she asked who had moved to the state after her election.
“They were referring to us as 'The Beast of The South East' — which I still am,” she said.
The applause continued as she spoke of her appointment to the United Nations — an experience that gave her the opportunity to tongue-lash Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy during the debates.
“Did you ever think we’d look at the sky and see a Chinese spy balloon going over us,” Haley asked, referring to a large surveillance device that flew over the country this year before it was shot down off the state’s coast.
The candidate spoke about the national debt, veteran services and immigration.
She closed her speech by emphasizing her longtime underdog role in politics.
“I’ve been underestimated in everything I’ve ever done,” she said. “And it’s a blessing — because it makes me scrappy.”Follow @SteveGarrisonPC
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