As foreign policy takes over the 2024 presidential race, Nikki Haley steps forward

Republican presidential candidate and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks during a town hall, Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, in Boone, Iowa.
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This article was first published in the On the Trail 2024 newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox on Tuesday and Friday mornings here.

Good morning and welcome to On the Trail 2024, the Deseret News’ campaign newsletter. I’m Samuel Benson, Deseret’s national political correspondent.

ICYMI: four Republican presidential candidates were in Utah this week, attending a closed-door summit with GOP donors and influencers. The lone open-press portion was a speech by Sen. Mitt Romney, in which he gave two newsy nuggets: first, that he’s actively encouraging two Democrats to challenge Biden; and second, that he thinks the No Labels push to run an independent candidate is a “bridge too far.”

Here’s the latest from the Deseret News’ 2024 election coverage:

The Big Idea

Here comes Nikki Haley

For three days this week, Republican donors and dignitaries huddled at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City with a specific mission: Find a Republican candidate who can beat Donald Trump.

The wide-ranging E2 Summit had other interesting attractions, of course. Former U.K. prime minister Liz Truss and author Peter Ziehan gave addresses. At least two sitting governors — Utah’s Spencer Cox and Georgia’s Brian Kemp — were in attendance. Discussions ranged from foreign policy to business to artificial intelligence.

But at center stage were the four presidential candidates who flew out to make their pitches: Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Doug Burgum and Mike Pence.

“There was certainly consensus in the room that everyone would like to find an alternative to Trump that we can consolidate behind and make the nominee,” Spencer Zwick, one of the summit’s organizers, told me.

Conversations with multiple attendees revealed that Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador, stole the show.

That isn’t to say the others didn’t leave a good impression. Christie’s “call-it-like-you-see-it” mentality was a hit, one attendee said. Pence received gratitude for his service as vice president and his strength on January 6, but was viewed as a long-shot. Burgum “surprised” a number of attendees, one said, leaving them “almost upset” they hadn’t heard from him earlier in the process.

“They all did incredibly well,” Zwick said, diplomatically. But he also said he knew “a number of people” in attendance who “have signed up to help” Haley.

It’s the latest chapter in a fast-moving string of wins for the South Carolinian. She trails Trump by 40-plus percentage points in most national polls, as do all candidates, but an oft-cited CNN poll last month suggested she has the best chance at beating Biden in a general election over any other GOP candidate. A huge fundraising haul last quarter leaves her with more cash in her coffers for the primary than DeSantis and the other challengers.

In our latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll of Utah Republicans, Haley is the biggest mover, jumping from 5% to 11% over the last month.

This week, Will Hurd became the first candidate to drop out and endorse another, throwing his support behind Haley. And a day later, longtime Washington Post columnist George Will called on Scott to do the same — despite his wife’s role as an adviser to Scott’s campaign.

All this as global atrocities make foreign policy a hingepoint of the election cycle — where Haley has admitted proficiency.

The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations had already flexed her foreign policy muscles on the trail, knocking fellow candidates over their positions on Israel and Ukraine in both debates. In one especially viral moment, she railed on Vivek Ramaswamy: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”

But now, foreign policy is all she’s talking about. On “Hannity” and in town halls. On radio shows and social media.

Granted, other Republican candidates are, too. Tim Scott gave a speech in Washington condemning Hamas and the Biden administration on Tuesday. Ron DeSantis referenced his time deployed in Iraq during an MSNBC hit. Trump, Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Mike Pence and the rest have all released statements supporting Israel. But none have banked on foreign policy expertise as a central part of their campaigns, from the start, to the extent Haley did.

A clarification here: there’s no room for using a horrific tragedy for political gain. Over 1,000 Israelis have been savagely killed, including elderly people and babies. Hundreds more have been tortured or taken hostage. The death toll for Palestinian civilians is growing, too. That this is could be a “great opportunity” to score political points, as one prominent Republican said this week, is wrong.

But assuming that the Israel-Hamas war will become a major theme of the election is fair, as is the recognition that many voters may consider experience in foreign matters a plus. And Haley seems to recognize this. She’s been as aggressive as any candidate, and perhaps more so, in vowing support to Israel and vengeance against Hamas. And while progressive college students on campuses across the country have cheered the terrorists, “Students for Haley” put out a statement Thursday backing Israel and slamming their peers “who side with savages.”

Maybe all this won’t move the needle a bit, in a contest where Trump maintains a near-insurmountable lead — Chris Cillizza has smart analysis on that here. And maybe the old adage will hold true — that “voting ends at the water’s edge” — since foreign policy regularly has little impact, if any, in determining who we select as president.

The exceptions? When issues of foreign policy become central to the national conversation, and when there is a clear partisan divide. 2024 seems to meet both qualifications — and already seems to have blown away any hint of regularity. I’m keeping an eye on Haley.

Ad of the week

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. — who ditched the Democratic Party and announced his candidacy as an independent Monday — released his first ad of the 2024 election cycle this week. It’s short and simplistic, implying Kennedy is the candidate who will sidestep culture wars and beat the two-party duopoly. The verdict is still out on that.


Weekend reads

RFK Jr. isn’t the only candidate who recently launched an independent campaign. Cornel West, formerly the Green Party’s flag-bearer, and before that, the People’s Party’s, ditched party affiliation for the second time last week and will run solo. “I’ve always been a jazz man,” he said in this expansive Politico profile. “It’s hard to stay in the party band and play your song, brother, if you’re a jazz man.” It’s Not Me, It’s You: Cornel West’s Messy Breakup (Calder McHugh, Politico).

Vice President Kamala Harris is adamant she’s ready to be president. But Republicans and many Democrats alike seem hesitant. This expansive profile digs into why: The Kamala Harris Problem (Elaina Plott Calabro, The Atlantic).

A smart take on the foreign policy divide among Republican candidates, from Haley’s hawkishness to Ramaswamy’s isolationism, and just about everything in between: Israel Violence Underscores the G.O.P. Divide on Foreign Policy (Anjali Huynh, The New York Times).

Have a question for next week’s mailbag? Send it my way — Happy to talk presidential candidates, policy, Iowa State Fair food ... anything 2024-related.

See you on the trail.

Editor’s Note: The Deseret News is committed to covering issues of substance in the 2024 presidential race from its unique perspective and editorial values. Our team of political reporters will bring you in-depth coverage of the most relevant news and information to help you make an informed decision. Find our complete coverage of the election here.