The women wear Chanel sneakers or expensive sunglasses, the men wear blue club jackets with gold buttons. People who are financially well off - the predominantly white upper class - meet in an event hall in Charleston, South Carolina. They all came this Wednesday morning (local time) for Nikki Haley - former governor of the state and former US ambassador to the United Nations. The Republican declared a day earlier that her goal is no less than the White House.
She is the first prominent Republican to challenge former President Donald Trump. But it is questionable whether the 51-year-old can really survive in the internal party primaries. In the end, Trump could even benefit from Haley's candidacy.
In Charleston, however, the Trump era seems to be in the past. It's the official start of Haley's presidential campaign and the ex-president is too flashy for many. "He doesn't represent what our moral values are," says Ethan Swords from the southeastern state. Trump, says the 25-year-old, was simply "the lesser evil" for many Republicans in the presidential elections. Unlike Trump, Haley is not about putting himself in the foreground. "She's trying to move the country forward."
Voters: "We need new leadership"
The Hunter couple, with two small America flags and a large Haley sign in their luggage, found even clearer words. "We need new leadership," he says. "We were embarrassed to have him as president because of his attitude," she says. Trump, he's just not professional.
However, the 76-year-old Republican is not thinking of retiring. He announced in November that he would like to run again in the 2024 election. Haley does not attack her former boss directly in her speech to hundreds of supporters in Charleston - but indirectly several times. She makes it clear not to believe Trump's lie about the stolen election. And Haley emphasizes that it is time for a new generation of politicians: "We will not win the fight for the 21st century if we continue to trust politicians from the 20th century."
Well-off Conservatives with no MAGA caps
In Haley's audience there are not - as with Trump - people with "Make America Great Again" caps, in conversations nobody immediately doubts Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election. And nobody calls "lying press" here either. It's well-off conservatives who want to outperform Trump.
And Haley himself sounds different - more optimistic - than Trump, who often conjures up World War III in his speeches and insults opponents in a derogatory way. "The American people are not filled with hate. We are filled with love and are sustained by faith," cries Haley, dressed all in white. But even she cannot do without alarmism à la Trump. "America is on a path of doubt, division and self-destruction. A path of dwindling patriotism and dwindling power," she warns, referring to the Democrats. "It's about nothing less than our survival."
The 51-year-old was the first woman to hold the governorship in South Carolina. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants - and she never tires of emphasizing her origins and gender. You can now do new things - for example, send a "tough woman to the White House," she rejoices. In the same breath, she explicitly opposes identity politics. In the past, she has repeatedly railed against quotas, sex education in schools, the right to abortion or classes that are supposed to reveal structural racism.
She represents arch-conservative positions
Haley may appear less radical at first glance - but she represents arch-conservative positions. As governor, she had caught the Confederate flag in front of the Capitol in South Carolina after protests in the course of a racially motivated massacre. She later commented on the meaning of the Civil War flag - for many a symbol of slavery - but uncritically.
Haley has been traded for senior office among Republicans since at least her time at the United Nations. But in polls, she performs poorly - in the low single digits - compared to possible party candidates for the White House. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and ex-Vice Vice President Mike Pence are expected to throw their hats in the ring soon as well. Haley even faces competition from his own state - Senator Tim Scott is also said to be flirting with an application for the highest office in the state.
A fragmented field of applicants uses one thing above all: Trump. Its biggest competitor is Governor DeSantis. Polls show that Haley's candidacy draws more votes from DeSantis than from Trump - because his supporters are considered particularly loyal.
The vice post in view?
"Current strategies are reminiscent of the 2016 primary, when many Republicans avoided confronting Trump because they feared direct conflict and alienating a supporter base that might eventually be up for grabs," the Washington Post said. And so Haley doesn't have any really loud celebrity supporters for her application in the party at the moment. There is much to suggest that most people want to wait and see - and don't want to mess with Trump and his supporters at an early stage. The "New York Times" speculates that Haley is avoiding direct attacks on Trump in order to keep the ticket as Trump Vice President for 2024 open.
The ex-president himself and Haley have a changeable relationship: at first there was mutual rejection, later openly displayed sympathy. Actually, Haley once made it clear that she did not want to compete against the ex-president. He attacks now. "Who knows, stranger things have happened before," he says mockingly on the Twitter replacement Truth Social, which he co-founded. "She's at 1% in the polls, not a bad start!!!"