DES MOINES — For nearly 11 months, Nikki Haley rarely created controversy in the Republican presidential race, with tightly scripted speeches and carefully calibrated answers to town hall questioners that seldom gained widespread attention or criticism.
Over the past 11 days, that’s changed.
The former U.N. ambassador drew swift rebukes from people in both parties for failing to mention slavery when asked at a town hall about the cause of the Civil War, before acknowledging the next day that the conflict was about slavery. The issue has continued to haunt her, prompting further criticism when she did more damage control at a recent CNN town hall, saying she “had Black friends growing up.”
After Haley told voters in New Hampshire that their state would “correct” the result of the Iowa caucuses, she faced some disapproval in the Hawkeye State, where her words showed up on local news broadcasts, prompted boos at the CNN town hall and drew repeated attacks from her rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Haley has sought to explain herself in various ways, saying that the comment was lighthearted banter and elaborating on the differences in personality between the two states’ voters.
And Haley has made other less impactful comments that have also raised some eyebrows, such as mistakenly calling star University of Iowa basketball player Caitlin Clark by the name of CNN news anchor Kaitlan Collins.
As she has risen in the polls, she has faced greater scrutiny over her words, along with various attempts to clarify or recast them. This has offered new lines of attack to her rivals at a critical juncture in the race, with a week left until the Iowa caucuses.
“Haley has built the reputation as being the most polished public presenter,” said GOP strategist Scott Jennings, and her recent missteps have given her opponents a new “opportunity to say … it looks great from a distance but the closer you get you realize it’s not as good as she claims.”
Yet former president Donald Trump, the clear GOP polling leader, has made far more polarizing remarks, gaffes and incendiary statements than she has. He has used dehumanizing language to describe undocumented immigrants, frequently misstates facts and makes false claims, and uses rhetoric that some experts have compared to authoritarian leaders including Adolf Hitler. Such comments have angered critics in both parties, while many Trump supporters have cheered his combative and unapologetic rhetoric.
And DeSantis has drawn ridicule for stiff interactions with voters — captured in viral videos — and his campaign, which launched on a spectacularly glitchy Twitter Space, is now the target of attack ads comparing his operation to a dumpster fire. He has faced a backlash from some donors after calling the war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” later seeking to clarify his remarks.
“Is there something that could be a little smoothed over? Sure,” New Hampshire Republican operative Matthew Bartlett said of Haley. But with Trump accused of echoing Hitler at rallies, “there’s a distinct difference in the minds of voters here. … She’s established herself. She’s differentiated herself.”
Haley and her allies have said the scrutiny she is under is a sign of her growing strength and momentum in the race. “Everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Trump is attacking Nikki for one reason: She’s the candidate they fear most,” said Haley spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas. “Despite the noise, Nikki is focused on the issues. … She’s putting in the work and we’re fighting for every inch.”
Republican strategists were skeptical that the blunders would upend the dynamics of the race, in which Trump has dominated and Haley has gained considerable momentum — pulling closest to Trump in New Hampshire and vying for second with DeSantis in Iowa. Some supporters have voiced concerns about the fallout, while many backers and others have brushed the issue aside.
Haley’s rivals continue to pounce. DeSantis in particular has amplified his attacks in Iowa, where supporters say he needs to beat back her momentum and secure a strong second place. DeSantis and his team have hammered Haley as “not ready for prime time” or unsteady when she “gets off her talking points.”
“By the way, I don’t care what Nikki Haley says — Iowans don’t need to be corrected on anything with how they vote,” DeSantis said Friday in Cumming, Iowa, to applause.
Some Haley fans said they are concerned about her remarks causing new vulnerabilities, even if they still plan to support her.
“I wish Haley would stop making these” kinds of comments, said Marshall Beard, a Republican retiree who attended a recent Haley town hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while considering her and DeSantis. He has since decided to caucus for Haley.
In interviews with Iowa and New Hampshire voters, many have dismissed Haley’s stumbles and course corrections and said they do not affect their decisions.
Among them is Pleasant Hill resident Keeley Anderson Kinney, who attended a Rotary Club meeting in Des Moines on Friday morning where Haley spoke. She dismissed the “correct” comment and DeSantis’s suggestion that it was dismissive of Iowans.
“Oh good lord no,” Anderson Kinney said when asked whether the remark concerned or offended her. She said that it was her first time seeing Haley speak in person, and that she came across as empathetic, aware and committed. She said she also liked that Haley stayed positive in the speech here, largely avoiding hitting her rivals.
While she said she likes DeSantis, she signed a commit-to-caucus card for Haley before leaving the event.
Until recently, the most notable instance of Haley saying something that sparked an uproar and prompted her to clarify herself had come after a proposal in mid-November that all social media users should be verified, a policy ridiculed by her opponents. Haley later dialed back her remarks, saying that as a mother, she thinks social media would be better if people didn’t post anonymously and that she believes social media companies, not the government, should do more to get rid of foreign bots.
Her clarifications of more recent comments have received more attention and criticism.
The most explosive example came at a town hall late last month in New Hampshire, where a man questioned her about the cause of the Civil War and Haley did not mention slavery. She clarified the next day, acknowledging that the Civil War was “about slavery” and that it was a mistake to omit that fact from her initial answer.
Haley has been continually asked about the answer since, including at a CNN town hall where she elaborated on her response and spoke about having both Black and White friends growing up with whom she discussed slavery and racism. Her explanation that “I had Black friends growing up” drew more attacks.
When it comes to the New Hampshire versus Iowa comments, Haley has been on the defensive for days.
“We banter across each other on different things. New Hampshire makes fun of Iowa. Iowa makes fun of South Carolina. It’s what we do,” the former South Carolina governor said at the CNN town hall, explaining her comment about New Hampshire “correcting Iowa.”
She added, “I don’t live, eat and breathe politics all the time. I like to have fun, too. … If we’re gonna have fun, I’m probably gonna say something funny in Iowa tomorrow about South Carolina and New Hampshire. It’s the way to just kind of not make everything so serious.”
In an interview airing on Iowa Press the next day, she said, “The structure of it is really pretty amazing: that Iowa starts it, you change personalities, you go into New Hampshire, and they continue it on.” The comment drew more criticism from the DeSantis camp, which accused her of pouring “salt on the wound” of Iowans.
“Each state has this personality a little bit, which I love,” she told attendees at a Run GenZ conference in Des Moines the same day. “I find Iowans to be very patriotic, very hard-working, very careful.” New Hampshire voters, in contrast “wear their feelings on their sleeve. They’re not careful. They tell you what they think.”
Trump’s team has echoed the argument some critics have put forth that Haley is “not ready for prime time,” as the former president has ramped up attacks on Haley on other fronts, accusing her of being insufficiently conservative on immigration and other issues.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — campaigning recently for Trump in Keokuk, Iowa, in front of a backdrop reading “TRUMP COUNTRY” — said she had just found out Haley expected New Hampshire to “correct what Iowa does.” The crowd booed.
The backlash to Haley’s Civil War answer could be a boost to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie as he competes for moderate and independent voters in New Hampshire who are key to Haley’s coalition. Christie has been calling Haley evasive on divisive questions and, along with DeSantis, drawing attention to Haley’s sidestepping of questions about whether she would serve as Trump’s running mate.
In an interview with the New Hampshire Union-Leader last week, Haley said that ruling out a spot on a Trump ticket would dominate the news for days and hurt her momentum, drawing more needling from her opponents.
Even some smaller slip-ups haven’t escaped voters’ notice. Beard, the Republican caucus-goer who attended a Haley event in Cedar Rapids, read about her error on Caitlin Clark’s name in his local paper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
He and his wife later heard about Haley’s suggestion that New Hampshire voters would “correct” the choice of Iowans. His wife, he said, was “angry.”
“Why would you go and patronize another state, at the expense of Iowa people? … She’s just gotta get better,” he said.