Nikki Haley faces 'high-wire act' in 2024 presidential bid against Trump

FILE - Nikki Haley greets supporters after an event with Republican Pennsylvania Senate nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz on Oct. 26, 2022, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Few have navigated the turbulent politics of the Trump era like Nikki Haley.

In early 2016, the then-South Carolina governor said she was "embarrassed" by candidate Donald Trump and decried his reluctance to condemn white supremacists. Nine months later, she agreed to join his Cabinet, serving as a key validator as Trump sought to win over skeptical world leaders and voters at home.

And shortly after Trump left the White House, Haley, whose resume by then included an ambassadorship to the United Nations, vowed not to step in the way if he ran for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Yet on Wednesday, she is poised to become the first major Republican candidate to enter the race against him.

"It’s going to be quite the high-wire act," said veteran Republican strategist Terry Sullivan. "She says she’s always been an underdog. She will be again."

The 51-year-old Haley may be the first to take on Trump, but a half-dozen or more high-profile Republicans are expected to join the GOP's 2024 presidential nomination contest over the coming months. Some would-be competitors may be more popular than Haley even in South Carolina, where she lives and has established a campaign headquarters.

Likely rivals include Sen. Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian and perhaps the most celebrated elected official in a state where Trump has already locked up endorsements from the governor and its senior senator, Lindsey Graham. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence could also be formidable foes should they run, as widely expected.

RELATED: Billionaire Koch network to oppose Trump in 2024

Indeed, on the eve of this week's announcement, there is broad agreement that Haley — the only Republican woman of color expected in the 2024 contest, a politician who loves to remind people that she has never lost an election — is about to be tested as never before.

Trump has stepped up his attacks on Haley in recent weeks. But allies describe the former governor, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, as a savvy executive uniquely positioned to lead a new generation of Republicans. They understand that the fight ahead could get ugly.

"She took the bull by the horns and said, ‘That doesn’t matter to me, I’m going to run,'" said longtime supporter Gavin J. Smith. "She did that when she ran for governor, and that’s what you’re going to see when she runs for president."

Perhaps more than anyone this young presidential primary season, Haley personifies the Republican Party's shifting views on Trump. Her reversal on whether to challenge the former president was based less on concerns about his divisive leadership or policy disagreements than the growing belief within the GOP that Trump is losing political strength.

Haley, like the vast majority of her party, largely supported Trump even after he inspired a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. It was not until Trump-backed candidates across several key states were defeated in last fall's midterm elections that a wave of high-profile Republicans began to openly weigh 2024 bids against him.

New York-based Republican donor Eric Levine says he's convinced that another Trump Republican nomination would lead to his party's destruction. Haley, he said, is among the three favorite Trump alternatives.

"I think as a woman of color and a daughter of legal immigrants from India, she'd give the Democratic Party no reason to exist. All their woke crap goes out the window," Levine said. "I think she's a spectacular candidate."

Haley's announcement will take place Wednesday in Charleston, the historic coastal city where her campaign will be based. Almost immediately, she'll travel to meet voters in New Hampshire and Iowa.

She's entrusted her campaign to a collection of senior staff led by longtime aides. Betsey Ankney, who heads up Haley's PAC, will manage the campaign, with the PAC's development director, Mary Kate Johnson, as finance director, Haley’s team told The Associated Press.

Longtime Haley adviser Chaney Denton and Nachama Soloveichik, who was a spokeswoman for recently retired Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, will head up communications. Strategist Jon Lerner will serve as senior adviser, and Barney Keller of Jamestown Associates will be Haley's media consultant.

For Haley, this week's launch marks a significant step on a long road that began in South Carolina's "Good Old Boys Club," she wrote in a Friday fundraising appeal.

"People thought I was too brown … too female … too young … too conservative … too principled," she wrote.

Born in 1972 in rural South Carolina, Haley has long spoken of a Southern rural childhood in which she felt she didn't fit. She was raised in the Sikh faith with a mother who wore traditional saris, and a father clad in a turban.

"Nikki has been regularly underestimated," said Catherine Templeton, a Republican who served Haley in two roles, leading South Carolina’s labor and public health agencies. "But it makes her work harder."

In her first campaign in 2004, Haley, formerly an accountant, defeated the longest-serving member of South Carolina’s House. After six years in the Legislature, she was considered a longshot when she mounted her 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

The GOP field was filled with more experienced politicians, and at times, she faced blatant racism. Then-state Sen. Jake Knotts appeared on a talk show and used a racial slur in reference to Haley. He apologized, saying it was meant as a joke.

Still, Haley became the first woman and person of color elected South Carolina’s governor — and the nation’s youngest state executive. After winning reelection in 2014, her second term was marred by crisis.

She spent weeks attending funerals of Black parishioners gunned down by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Charleston church in 2015. Later that year, she pushed for and signed legislation to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, where it had flown for more than 50 years.

Haley's political skills were tested in a different way in 2016, as Trump went from late-night television punchline to serious Republican presidential contender.

She endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ahead of South Carolina's high-stakes Republican primary, then backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz once Rubio was knocked out.

Then, Haley described Trump as "everything a governor doesn't want in a president." She also said she was "embarrassed" by his attacks against former President George W. Bush and condemned Trump's reluctance to disavow the KKK.

But shortly after Trump won the presidency, Haley agreed to serve as the new administration's ambassador to the United Nations, a Cabinet-level position.

"I proudly serve in this administration, and I enthusiastically support most of its decisions and the direction it is taking the country," Haley said in a 2018 op-ed.

Later that year, Haley abruptly announced her departure from the U.N. in the wake of an ethics probe, fueling speculation that she might challenge Trump in 2020 or replace Pence on the ticket. Neither happened.

Instead, Haley returned to South Carolina, joined the board of aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and hit the lucrative speaking circuit, reportedly commanding fees as high as $200,000. She also penned two books.

Her public support for Trump continued even after the attack on the Capitol.

"I’m really proud of the successes of the Trump administration. Whether it was foreign policy or domestic policy, we should embrace those," she tweeted three weeks after the insurrection.

But it's unclear whether such platitudes will give Haley much cushion in a party that, for now, remains dominated by Trump and his supporters. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 House Republican, has already endorsed Trump's 2024 bid. While she declined to comment directly on Haley's candidacy, she insisted that Trump would defeat any Republican challenger "by massive margins."

"It is time for Republicans to unite around the most popular Republican in America," she said of Trump.