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Haley hopes her leadership history bring national attention to her presidential run

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

When Nikki Haley was the governor of South Carolina, she had gained national attention for how she responded to a shooting in which a white supremacist killed nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston. Now Haley, a Republican, is hoping her past leadership will bring her national attention again, this time as she runs for president. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: One clear theme of Haley's presidential announcement this week is unity. And to emphasize that, she pointed to her state's response to hate.

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NIKKI HALEY: We turned away from fear, toward God.

KURTZLEBEN: Haley is the first to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican nomination and is one of several potential candidates who vehemently opposed Trump, then embraced him and now will run against him. And with Haley, the topic of race highlights how her politics have shifted. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, Haley famously signed the law removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

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HALEY: For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way. But the statehouse is different.

KURTZLEBEN: Haley got bipartisan respect for that decision, and she has often referenced that as an important moment of her governorship. She spoke of it to slam Donald Trump in 2016.

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HALEY: We saw and looked at true hate in the eyes last year in Charleston. I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not a part of our party.

KURTZLEBEN: But then Haley eventually served in the Trump administration and became a prime example of how Trump reshaped the party. Trump put race at the forefront of American politics, from immigration to policing to education, and Trump's support has been correlated with certain racist beliefs. In her announcement video, the Indian American Haley references her own racial experience, but then immediately blasts Democrats as racially divisive. But simply casting Democrats as the enemy won't unify all Republicans, particularly those who are disgusted with what the GOP has become.

Doug Brannon is a former Republican lawmaker in South Carolina who led the 2015 charge to remove the Confederate flag.

DOUG BRANNON: Mr. Trump gave people license to say things that, before him, they didn't feel they could say. He gave them a mouthpiece, and because of him, they were emboldened.

KURTZLEBEN: Brannon, in fact, declined to say whether he would vote for a Republican or Democrat in 2024. Trump upended what it means to be Republican.

Teresa Cosby at Furman University points out that Haley is often mistaken for a moderate. But right now, being more extreme may appeal more to primary voters in a swath of red states.

TERESA COSBY: The battle is between Republicans in the primaries, and so you don't pay any penalty for playing to that extreme-right ideology that is replicated at the national level in states like Florida and Texas.

KURTZLEBEN: And in that vein, Cosby doesn't think Haley's Confederate flag removal will help her win the nomination.

COSBY: It's just going to score her points with people who want the Republican Party to return to some normalcy, and how many of those group are left in the Republican Party?

KURTZLEBEN: And Haley may not bring it up much anyway. While the Charleston shooting was a part of her announcement video, the push to take down the Confederate flag was not.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.