Nikki Haley pitches a change in leadership

GOP presidential candidate says America needs new direction and a generational shift.

By BY KAITLYN SCHALLHORNAND CLARA HARTER STAFF WRITERS

Former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley barnstormed Southern California on Wednesday just as primary election ballots were starting to arrive in voters’ mailboxes.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley greets a supporter at the Wild Goose Tavern in Costa Mesa on Wednesday. 

The Republican presidential candidate was introducing herself to Southern California voters, highlighting her tenure as the Palmetto State’s former chief executive and her foreign policy experience at the U.N. while courting voters and doing some fundraising.

Haley, 52, also is ramping up her criticisms of former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the GOP primary race, saying he begets “chaos” and is focused more on himself than on voters.

“I voted for Donald Trump twice. I was proud to serve America in his administration, but chaos follows him,” Haley said at the Wild Goose Tavern in Costa Mesa on Wednesday morning. “We can’t be a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive it.”

Pointing to House Republicans knocking down an Israel aid package and an appellate court’s recent ruling that Trump isn’t immune from prosecution for trying to overturn his 2020 election loss, Haley said, “Every bit of it is chaos and he’s got his fingerprints on every bit of it.”

“We need someone with executive experience, but we also need someone who knows national security,” Haley said.

Her message to local voters, Haley told the Southern California News Group in an exclusive interview in Costa Mesa, is, “Let’s make America normal again.”

“There’s a decision that (voters in Southern California) have to make. Do we go with the same or do we go in a new direction? And more of the same is not just Joe Biden; it’s also Donald Trump,” Haley said. “Are we really going to give them two candidates in their 80s? We can do better than that.”

Haley has called for term limits and mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75. She said those views — and others — have fueled Trump’s and his surrogates’ attacks.

“They don’t like that I’m not interested in being their friends,” she said. “I’m interested in serving the taxpayers of our country. … They can go and say whatever lies they want; my record stands true.”

The ages of President Biden (81) and Trump (77) should matter to voters, Haley maintained.

“We will have a female president. The hard truth is, it’s either going to be me or Kamala Harris,” she said. “We need someone who can do eight years of hard, strong discipline to get the job done.”

About 400 people crowded inside the Wild Goose Tavern during the drizzly morning — according to crowd estimates from Mario Marovic, a partner in the restaurant, who was sipping on drinks from the bar and eating appetizers such as pickled deviled eggs and sweet potato goat cheese fritters.  Animal heads, draped with bras, lined the walls. “Haley for President” buttons and signs adorned tables.

The bar is named for John Wayne’s yacht, said Newport Beach Councilmember Erik Weigand, who introduced Haley.

“We need somebody just like John Wayne who can stand up to bullies … and that is why I like what Nikki Haley brings to the table,” he said. 

Haley capped off the day with a rally at the Hollywood American Legion Post 43 venue, where by the 7 p.m. start time, the rain had begun to fall pretty heavily. Speaking to the Los Angeles crowd of about 250 people, per the campaign, Haley walked on stage to the thunderous beats of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

During her 30-minute stump speech, she highlighted the border crisis and how she would address it. She proposed putting 25,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents on the ground, defunding “sanctuary cities” and introducing a national verification system where all businesses have to prove that the people they hire have legal immigration status.

“Eight and a half million illegal immigrants have come through that border,” she said. “We had more fentanyl come across the border last year than (the amount that) can kill every single American.”

In California, the GOP presidential election is considered “closed,” meaning only registered Republican voters will see GOP candidates on their ballots. Stephaney Avital, an Orange County resident, said she’s been a registered Democrat but switched parties to support Haley. “I want to see a change in our country. I don’t want to see the same old circus that we’ve had in the last eight years,” Avital said. “We want to see moderation, we want to see logic, we want to see policies change. We want to see something different than we’ve already had.”

Haley was met Wednesday morning by a small group of Trump supporters who gathered outside the restaurant. They waved MAGA flags and wore “America first” hats, calling Haley a “RINO,” a phrase that stands for “Republican in name only” and is used by the former president and his allies to malign those who are more moderate in the GOP.

Two demonstrators were escorted out of the Costa Mesa bar for trying to shout down Haley. At least one was a supporter of the former president.

She was interrupted again in Los Angeles by a protester who called her a “climate criminal.” Haley briefly paused her remarks during the interruptions, using it to highlight her husband’s military experience.  Maj. Michael Haley is serving in Africa with the South Carolina Army National Guard. He and other servicemembers, she said, are making sacrifices so Americans can have freedom of speech. 

The Southern California trip came on the heels of a big loss in a symbolic presidential primary election in Nevada on Tuesday night. There, voters picked “none of these candidates” ahead of Haley.

Trump didn’t participate in the Nevada primary, where no delegates are awarded and is instead focused on today’s Nevada caucus. But Haley brushed it off Wednesday morning, calling it a “scam that Trump already had in the bag.” Her campaign, she said, didn’t spend time or money in Nevada, instead focusing on states like South Carolina and Michigan as well as Super Tuesday spots.

Haley is committed to staying in the race through Super Tuesday, she said. “I’m not going anywhere. We have a country to save,” Haley said when asked about how long she’ll stay in the race. “We are determined to outsmart, outwork, outlast until we finish this.” Super Tuesday — March 5 — is a critical time in the primary election season; it’s the day when the most states vote and candidates can rack up more delegates for the summer’s nominating convention.

In California, 169 delegates are at stake and — after the California Republican Party changed its rules last year — Trump could sweep them all. If a candidate can secure a majority of votes in the primary election (50% plus one), the rules now say, he or she will nab all the delegates, the most of any state. But if no contender can secure a majority, the delegates will be distributed proportionally.

About two-thirds (66%) of likely GOP voters in California surveyed in early January said they planned to vote for Trump, according to a Berkeley IGS poll. That’s a 9% increase from an October survey. Haley was in the No. 2 spot, that January poll found, at 11%.

“Donald Trump is running away with the Republican nomination. The question for Nikki Haley thus becomes one of strategy given that she is not going to win this time around,” said Matthew Beckmann, a UC Irvine political science professor. Haley could be waiting in hopes that Trump will get bumped from the ticket, Beckmann said, or she could be using this campaign as the foundation for the 2028 presidential cycle or other endeavors. However, “with all the uncertainty surrounding Trump, Haley plodding along and maintaining her status as the only other Republican running is something of a win unto itself,” he said.

Aggregates of national polling show Haley leading Biden in hypothetical head-to-head matchups by about 3.6 percentage points. Trump is ahead of Biden by 1.7 percentage points, according to Real Clear Polling’s aggregation. 

“We should want to win the majority of Americans,” Haley said. “But the only way we’re going to do that is if we have a new generational leader."

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