One week after Nikki Haley made headlines for her bungled response to a question about the cause of the Civil War, the former South Carolina governor is still struggling to climb out of the hole she dug herself into.
At a CNN town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday night, Haley was asked again about her comments — and again she stumbled. While talking about her education about slavery growing up in South Carolina, she also mentioned, for some reason, that she had Black friends.
“I should have said ‘slavery’ right off the bat. But if you grow up in South Carolina, literally in second and third grade, you learn about slavery,” she said. “You grow up and you have — you know, I had Black friends growing up. It is a very talked-about thing.”
Haley, who has been accused of leaning into her Indian American identity when convenient while simultaneously taking up racist dog whistles, also touted herself as a leader who would bring people together. As an example, she pointed to her approach to the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse.
“I knew half of South Carolinians saw the Confederate flag as heritage and tradition. The other half of South Carolinians saw slavery and hate,” she said on Thursday. “My job wasn’t to judge either side. My job was to get them to see the best of themselves and go forward.”
As governor, Haley resisted calls to take down the Confederate flag at the statehouse until 2015, when a white supremacist killed nine people at a historically Black church in Charleston. Less than a week after the mass shooting, she publicly supported its removal, saying, “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer.”
In this crucial period leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Haley has spent more time and energy than she probably would’ve liked walking back her comments on the Civil War. It’s too presumptuous to say that this fumble has torched her presidential bid; one poll from Tuesday saw her pull a minute lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, although both still trail far behind Donald Trump.
But her clumsy responses underscore some of her weaknesses, including her inability to speak frankly about race to voters who often dismiss identity politics and the challenge of appealing to a wide swath of conservative voters without tipping too far to the right.
Haley has vowed to stay in the race for the nomination “until the very end.” “You are going to see me fight until the very end, on the last day in Iowa,” she said. “And I’m not playing in one state, I’m fighting in every state.”
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