By Steve Holland and Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Former American ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Tuesday kicked off her campaign for the 2024 Republican U.S. presidential nomination, a tough challenge in a race in which a new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows her former boss Donald Trump holding a strong lead.
“I’m Nikki Haley and I’m running for president,” Haley said in a video that her team sent out by email as she joined Trump as the only announced 2024 candidates.
Haley, a former South Carolina governor who served as the U.N. ambassador under Trump from 2017 to 2018, is set to lay out her campaign plans in a speech on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina.
The daughter of two Indian immigrants who ran a successful clothing store in a rural part of South Carolina, Haley, 51, has gained a reputation in the Republican Party as a solid conservative who has the ability to address issues of gender and race in a more credible fashion than many of her peers.
The Republican field is expected to grow in the coming weeks and months.
Haley faces an uphill climb, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday that found that 4% of registered Republicans supported her. Trump received support from 43% of registered Republicans in the poll conducted from Feb. 6-13, while 31% said they supported Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to launch a campaign but has not yet done so.
Other high-profile Republicans looking at a 2024 run include former Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, among others.
“It’s time for a new generation of leadership – to rediscover fiscal responsibility, secure our border and strengthen our country, our pride and our purpose,” Haley said in her video.
She also harked back to her foreign policy experience with a folksy flair.
“China and Russia are on the march. They all think we can be bullied, kicked. You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels,” she said.
Trump, 76, has seen his campaign – announced in November – get off to a slow start. On Feb. 2 he mocked Haley on his Truth Social platform, noting she had earlier said she would support Trump if he ran in 2024.
“Nikki has to follow her heart, not her honor. She should definitely run!” he wrote.
Trump was defeated in his 2020 re-election bid by Democrat Joe Biden. Biden is expected to seek re-election in 2024.
South Carolina is expected to host one of the first Republican nominating primaries in 2024 and will play an important role in picking the eventual candidate.
A day after Haley’s event, Scott will kick off a “listening tour focused on Faith in America” in Charleston, according to a campaign advisory. He will then swing through Iowa, another key early voting state.
Haley has pitched herself as a stalwart defender of American interests abroad. During her stint as an ambassador to the United Nations, the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed under Democratic President Barack Obama and was highly unpopular among Republicans.
One Haley associate said she chose to launch her campaign this early to try to grab voters’ attention and shake up the race.
Many key Republican donors and elected officials in South Carolina have been looking for alternatives to Trump amid concerns about his electability, according to conversations in recent weeks with more than a dozen party officials and strategists.
Several prominent Republicans, including Haley and Scott, opted to skip a Trump campaign appearance last month in Columbia that was intended to showcase his support in the state.
Among Haley’s major challenges will be nailing down a consistent message. Even in a field in which most candidates have changed their mind about key issues multiple times, Haley is particularly chameleonic. She has distanced herself from Trump several times, only to later soften her rhetoric, saying he has an important role to play in the Republican Party.
While she has criticized Republicans for baselessly casting doubt on the results of the 2020 election, she campaigned ahead of the 2022 midterm elections on behalf of multiple candidates who supported Trump’s false election fraud claims.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, Will Dunham, Doina Chiacu, Nick Macfie and Chizu Nomiyama)