CLIVE, Iowa (AP) — Nikki Haley has long tried to set herself apart from her Republican presidential rivals on foreign policy, peppering her speeches with anecdotes about serving as United Nations ambassador and the threats she sees from China and Russia.
The war provoked by Hamas’ attack on Israel has shaken American politics — and put the primary race in her wheelhouse.
Haley remains well behind former President Donald Trump after two energetic debate performances but is trying to position herself as his chief rival by drawing contrasts on how they view U.S. responsibility in foreign affairs. She’s tying the war between Israel and Hamas to her conservative domestic priorities, arguing that both Israel and the U.S. could be made vulnerable by what she calls “distractions.”
“If you look at how divided America is, if you look at how distracted America is, when that happens, our enemies take notice, because it shows weakness,” she said in an interview this week. “We are seeing in Israel, they have had distractions, and you see this happen. We should not think we’re so immune that we can continue to have this division and distraction, and that we’re not going to pay a price for it.”
Pressed on what she meant, she said she wouldn’t criticize Israel but cited a number of issues in the U.S., including the fall of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the rising national debt, and spiking numbers of illegal crossings and fentanyl seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Haley and other Republicans argue that extremists could cross the southern border to stage a similar attack in the U.S. While there’s no public evidence that Hamas has infiltrated the U.S. through Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security said in a national threat assessment this year that people with “potential terrorism connections” continue to attempt to enter the country.
The Republican field has lined up behind Israel since Saturday and blamed President Joe Biden for his handling of relations with Iran, notably a deal to return American hostages that included a $6 billion transfer of seized funds to Tehran. Iran has long supported Hamas, though U.S. officials say there’s no conclusive evidence yet that Iranian agents were involved in the most recent attack.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott on Tuesday called for a Senate Banking Committee probe into the funds. A day earlier at a Florida synagogue, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed state-level sanctions against Iran for its ongoing support of Hamas.
Since before the war, Haley has gone after her rivals on issues such as U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and how Washington deals with China.
In June, Haley criticized Trump for being too friendly to China during his time in office, also warning that weak support for Ukraine would “only encourage” China to invade Taiwan, a viewpoint shared by several of her GOP rivals.
In the first GOP debate in August, she attacked Vivek Ramaswamy’s argument that the U.S. shouldn’t support Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion, telling the 38-year-old entrepreneur, “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
In September, she critiqued his use of the TikTok video sharing app over concerns about its Chinese ownership, telling him during that debate, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
Ramaswamy in turn has labeled Haley a war profiteer, saying in August that he wished her “well on your future career on the boards of Lockheed and Raytheon.” Haley has not worked for either defense contractor but did serve on the board of Boeing — the aerospace giant with major government business — after leaving her ambassador post.
And, in keeping with how he treats rivals, Trump has given Haley a nickname, Birdbrain. Haley later posted on social media a photo of a bird cage that she said was left at her hotel room door by Trump allies, adding the hashtag, “#PrettyPatheticTryAgain.”
Haley and the others at the GOP debates have tried with little success to dislodge Trump from the top of the field. Trump has skipped both debates and called for future events to be cancelled.
Haley’s circle of donors and advisers has increasingly targeted DeSantis in trying to become Trump’s chief rival, in keeping with the theory of many campaigns that a single challenger might be able to do more damage to the former president.
Haley took on DeSantis for his disputes with Disney, saying she’d welcome the flagship entertainment company to South Carolina, which she led as governor for six years. And after DeSantis characterized the Russia-Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute,” Haley said he was showing “weakness.”
Asked about Haley’s apparent mounting support and fundraising, DeSantis said Monday that he had the better leadership record.
“It’s all about, who’s going to be a leader that can come in, make tough decisions, be strong and get things done,” DeSantis said while campaigning in Iowa. “As governor, everything I promised, we delivered on.”
On Friday, both campaigns are headed to Texas to court deep-pocketed donors as they strive to be seen as the Trump alternative.
Bill Strong, a retired international banker who has been raising money for Haley, said potential donors were discussing Haley’s international experience as an asset during his fundraising calls Monday.
“This underscores, or reemphasizes, the importance that the president of the United States know what they are doing on the world stage,” Strong said. “They have to know the region. They have to know the players. Nikki knows them all extremely well. No one else does. You can argue the former president doesn’t.”
Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner had been a DeSantis donor but is now contributing to Haley’s campaign for president and encouraging others to follow suit.
“She’s positive in the sense that she’s not out criticizing other people constantly or belittling people who disagree with her,” said Rauner, a wealthy businessman who now lives in Florida. “She’s smart. She’s tough. She’s conservative. She’s a doer. And she’s what I call a happy warrior.”
Haley has drawn bigger crowds in Iowa, which kicks off the Republican nominating calendar with its Jan. 15 caucuses, and hopes to get a boost from her home state voters in South Carolina in February.
Her fierce advocacy of Israel was a defining theme for her two years as U.N. ambassador. In 2018, she defended Israel’s use of force against Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza and walked out of a Security Council session as the Palestinian envoy began to speak.
Polling conducted prior to Hamas’ attack found that 44% of Republicans were likely to call Israel an ally with shared values, higher than 25% of Democrats or 32% of adults nationally. The poll was conducted in August by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
White evangelical voters are hugely influential in Iowa’s GOP caucuses. Evangelicals are also key to Israel’s support in the U.S., driven by a belief that the state of Israel and its Jewish people fulfill biblical prophecy for the end times to occur and a Christian messiah to return.
Haley’s credentials seem to be at the root of some voters’ attraction to her. During Haley’s recent swing through Iowa, that experience resonated with Linda Marks, a retiree who came to a Des Moines suburb to see her make her case ahead of the leadoff caucuses in January.
“I think she has more foreign relations experience than all of them put together,” Marks, a retired accountant from Windsor Heights, Iowa, said late last month as she waited for Haley to take the stage. “I don’t love everything she says, but there is nothing more important to me than foreign policy.”
Associated Press reporters Thomas Beaumont in Boone, Iowa, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.