GOP Hopefuls Woo Nikki Haley Ahead of S.C. Primary

GOP Hopefuls Woo Nikki Haley Ahead of S.C. Primary
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COLUMBIA, S.C.—Nikki Haley often says she’s a big fan of governors. And this year, as the first-in-the-South primary takes shape, she's seeing some of those with presidential ambitions come a courtin'. 

Governor Haley isn’t going to pick a favorite anytime soon. Instead, at least in the early stages, she is planning to play the role of “a very sweet host to all.”

Haley appears to be a gracious team player, welcoming presidential aspirants to her state with open arms. But she also makes clear she’s not interested in playing the role of an adoring fan or political sidekick. Recently elected to a second term, Haley is not shy about showing she is very much in command in her state, and plans to make even those she most admires work for it.

Her approach was on display during a recent appearance at a domestic violence shelter in Cayce with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was testing the presidential waters in the state this week. Haley led the press conference that followed, making sure local reporters were called on at least as much the ones who flew in to cover Bush.

“It’s not about taking pictures and holding a baby. We’re going to talk about South Carolina issues,” Haley said of the coming visits of presidential hopefuls. “And the candidates who come here and figure out what those issues are, I appreciate, and you should too. “ 

Haley said she wanted to give South Carolinians time to decide for themselves “what they want to see in a president” and who they like. And right now, it’s open season. “We want them to shake as many hands as they can and talk about real issues that affect South Carolinians,” she said. “Were going to be asking a lot of questions.”

That piece of advice is something she got from none other than Jeb Bush. As an underdog in a crowded GOP primary for governor in 2010, Haley sought advice from Bush, whom she had recently met. He told her about the importance of meeting personally with voters. Haley, a longtime advocate of school choice, later sought Bush’s advice on education policy. (Notably, though, South Carolina recently repealed the Common Core education standards that Bush championed in his state.)

But right now, Bush is just one in the crop of current or former governors interested in running for president. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has plans to visit with Haley when he makes his first foray as a presidential candidate into the state this week. 

Walker and Haley were elected the same year and have been friendly since, sharing a passion against unions. Haley has actively opposed efforts to unionize a Boeing plant in her state, an issue that could give Walker traction in the state. Haley campaigned for Walker in his 2011 recall election. Walker came to the state to support Haley in 2013 when she launched her re-election bid. When their respective home college football teams faced off in the Capital One Bowl, the governors wagered Wisconsin brats and South Carolina barbeque. The two are members of the Republican Governors Association, and Haley recently posted a selfie of the two of them on their way to the White House for meetings last month.

Haley is also close with RGA head Chris Christie, who is still considering a presidential bid. Christie has campaigned for and traveled with Haley for her re-election bid, and he attended her second inauguration.

The South Carolina governor has also forged relationships with Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, as well as senators. Home state colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is also thinking about running, speaks highly of her, and Marco Rubio visited with her at a state GOP fundraising barbeque hosted by Rep. Jeff Duncan last summer. 

“Governor Haley has very good relationships with several people who are considering running for president, and she encourages all of them to come to South Carolina often,” says Rob Godfrey, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “It’s far too early in the process for her to consider any endorsement.”

South Carolina GOP Chairman Matt Moore envisions the governor playing a role similar to what then-Rep. Tim Scott played in 2012, inviting presidential hopefuls to the state and hosting town hall formats with them.

“If you look at what happened in 2011, Scott didn’t endorse at all, but raised his statewide profile and became a U.S. senator,” Moore told RCP. “So I think there’s a lot of benefit in waiting as long as possible, and making sure the issues she cares about are heard: jobs, stopping unions, and trade.”

Haley is well-liked in the state after suffering from low approval ratings in her first term, and has support from a spectrum of Republicans there. “The governor is extremely popular in South Carolina and I think she can play a strong role” in the GOP nationally, said State House Speaker Jay Lucas. 

As the first woman governor of her state, and the first Indian-American woman to hold the office, Haley has a rich and compelling biography. Her 2010 election put her on the path to star status in the party. But she has also had some troubles while in office, including being fined by the state ethics commission in 2013 for failing to disclose the addresses of campaign donors.

Haley endorsed Mitt Romney in December 2011 with an announcement on Fox News. Her support of the former Massachusetts governor was seen as a boost to his conservative credentials. After successful debate performances, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, which disrupted the state’s history of picking the nominee. Still, Haley continued to be a top surrogate for Romney in various states.

This cycle, with several friends in the running, Haley plans to wait it out for now, making her endorsement all the more coveted. “I think she can move the needle, quite significantly, if she waits for the right time,” Moore says.

Haley is also term limited, and might have a personal interest in who wins the nomination. She is mentioned as a potential, though unlikely, vice presidential candidate.

“Traditionally, vice presidential nominees have come from swing states. Gov. Haley is one of our most compelling young Republicans nationally, given her background and race, and I think most certainly, she’s young, dynamic, and speaks her mind,” says Moore, who mentioned ambassadorships or trade representatives as potential future positions for Haley. “I think there’s a role for her if we win the White House."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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