Haley prepares to signal presidential run in video, as GOP race starts slowly

Photo for The Washington Post by David Becker
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas in November.

Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador and governor of South Carolina, is preparing to announce that she will run for president and could release a video signaling her plans as soon this week – positioning herself to be the first declared Republican challenger to Donald Trump at a time when other prospective candidates have slowed their moves.

The video strategy, as described by multiple people briefed on the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly, is intended to drive attendance and enthusiasm for an in-person announcement event in the coming weeks. It comes as some political advisers have been relocating to the Charleston, S.C., area for a campaign.

Haley’s decision to lean into the race bucks the more cautious strategy adopted by most other potential candidates, who have decided there is no need to rush their preparations. Advisers to these Republicans, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said there is wariness about becoming an early target of former president Trump.

Some of the advisers also voiced hope that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made preliminary moves toward a run, faces early scrutiny because of his high national polling – scrutiny that could work to their advantage. They added that there is a general sense in their circles that there is enough time to learn more about how the race will play out and still attract donors, get on ballots and build campaign infrastructure.

“There’s no benefit to being in early,” said David Urban, a former Trump adviser who is friendly with multiple would-be 2024 candidates. “You don’t want to be in the ring getting banged on by the former president in a one-on-one. There’s no reason anyone has to get in right now. There’s no urgency for anyone. Everyone is sitting and waiting.”

Much of the consequential action in the race so far has taken place in private conversations and strategy sessions rather than early-state barnstorms, such as methodical preparation by aides to former vice president Mike Pence, and DeSantis advisers’ behind-the-scenes moves to identify potential staff and plan travel.

Even Trump has moved slowly after his early announcement. The former president hit the trail this past weekend for the first time since launching his campaign in November, promising a campaign “about the future” and “about issues” even as he returned to some old grievances – falsely telling Republicans in New Hampshire that he “won two general elections,” a reference to his claims of victory in 2020. Some Republican leaders have urged the party to move on and view the ex-president as politically weakened after disappointing midterms in which Trump’s endorsed candidates lost key races.

There are also Republicans who maintain hope that Trump might simply lose interest in running; they note that he has not filed a personal financial disclosure report, asking for two extensions. But others view Trump as the most likely GOP nominee, pointing to the demonstrated base of support he has built within the party that others have yet to match. Speaking in New Hampshire and then South Carolina on Saturday, the former president, appearing at smaller-scale events than he typically held in past campaigns, promised a return “soon” to the big rallies he is known for and insisted, “I’m more angry now, and I’m more committed now than I ever was.”

“I don’t see right now how he loses in the primary,” Urban said of Trump.

The former president on Tuesday officially won the support of Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who praised his foreign policy in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, writing that “Trump’s presidency marked the first real disruption to a failed consensus and the terrible consequences it wrought.”

Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump, said in 2021 that she wouldn’t run for president if Trump did. But she later changed course and during the past few months has been teasing campaign plans. In a recent interview with Fox News, Haley indicated she was moving quickly toward a decision and said there’s a need for “new leadership.”

“And can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader,” she said. If she won the GOP nomination, Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, would be the first woman and the first Asian American to lead the party’s ticket.

Trump told reporters that he told Haley in a recent phone call to “go by your heart, if you want to run.” A person close to the Trump campaign, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, suggested that Haley’s early moves were an effort to make a mark before Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), another potential candidate, gets in the race. “I guess the audition for Trump’s VP starts now,” the person said.

Representatives for Haley and Scott declined to comment on their plans.

Unlike the 2016 race, which began as a free-for-all, the 2024 nomination fight has two contenders who start with clear polling advantages: Trump and DeSantis. Several governors who could enter the race, including DeSantis, Texas’s Greg Abbott, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu and South Dakota’s Kristi L. Noem, have legislative sessions early in the year that could push back their decisions until the spring or early summer.

Pence is not expected to announce until at least this spring, an adviser said, and his team has been working behind the scenes to line up endorsements, meeting with activists in states such as South Carolina and Iowa. The adviser said he is in no hurry to jump into the race and is fine with others being in first.

“I think that everyone is waiting to see how the Trump campaign materializes,” said Fred Zeidman, a major GOP donor from Texas. “Because he’s obviously the 800-pound elephant in the room.”

One person advising a would-be candidate said concern about Trump’s dominance has been driving discussions with candidates and donors, who want to know how rivals plan to get around Trump. Others expressed hope that Trump will find himself in a nasty fight this spring with DeSantis that politically wounds them both.

“Everyone is getting ready in case Trump falters,” this person said. “But if he doesn’t, you have people making different decisions.”

Potential candidates can wait only so long – the first Republican presidential debate is expected to take place in July or August alongside a meeting of the Republican National Committee. The national party is considering a requirement that candidates demonstrate grass-roots fundraising strength to qualify for the debate stage, a strategy Democrats employed in 2020 to increase their donor pool.

Despite the collective hesitance to officially jump in, possible contenders are well into laying the groundwork for national campaigns. Pence and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo have been traveling on book tours, and DeSantis is set to release his memoir on Feb. 28, paving the way for the kind of out-of-state trips that he took ahead of the midterms.

DeSantis is expected to travel, including to Dallas for a major speech and fundraiser, as he explores a bid in the upcoming months, a person familiar with the matter said. His team is actively preparing for 2024 and has identified potential staff in early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, a Republican with knowledge said. Dave Abrams, a DeSantis spokesman, declined to comment.

One question that looms over the jockeying is where wealthy Republican donors will decide to put their money. Some major donors who were with Trump in 2020 have not yet committed to his reelection, even after entreaties from Trump advisers. As one adviser to a major GOP donor put it, “I don’t think anybody in our world has picked a horse yet.”

Scott has a political action committee that has received millions of dollars in backing from Oracle founder Larry Ellison. The senator from South Carolina is eyeing a run but is in no hurry to make a decision, said a person with knowledge of his thinking. This person said Scott, the only Black senator in the GOP, is considering what lanes exist outside the Trump and DeSantis lanes in the party – and whether there is a place for a “positive, more traditional candidate.”

Scott will make another trip to Iowa in late February as the special guest at the Polk County GOP’s Lincoln Dinner, according to an announcement from the organization.

The potential 2024 field includes many Republicans critical of Trump’s false claims and combative rhetoric, who would probably face tough roads to the nomination but are openly mulling runs and seeking to raise their profiles.

Asa Hutchinson, who just finished eight years as Arkansas governor and recently visited Iowa, is headed to South Carolina to speak Friday at his alma mater, Bob Jones University. Former governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who like Hutchinson criticized Trump well before the midterms, have also expressed interest in running.

Former congressman Will Hurd of Texas has also told supporters and people close to him that he is thinking of running for president, according to a Republican familiar with the conversations. He stoked some 2024 talk by planning a visit last weekend to New Hampshire but wound up overshadowed by Trump’s speech at a meeting of the state GOP.

“I always have an open mind about how to serve my country,” Hurd told Fox News last week when asked about a run for the White House. Hurd could not immediately be reached for comment.

A Georgia Republican familiar with the matter says there is also a “small chance” that recently reelected Gov. Brian Kemp takes steps toward a presidential run after the state legislative session concludes in April. The GOP governor started a super PAC in November that could be used to support a future Senate or presidential run, and he has planned some national fundraising travel later this year, the person said.

Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Several Republican senators who were once considered possible presidential contenders have recently signaled other priorities. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), while not ruling out a run, has been focused on preparing for his reelection bid. Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) has also launched another Senate campaign for next year. His colleague Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who ran in 2016 against Trump, has not shown much appetite for a rematch.

It’s not clear what Trump has planned to follow his recent trip to New Hampshire and South Carolina. On that trip he declared, “I don’t think we have competition.”