CHARLESTON, S.C. — If there’s one thing we know about GOP primary voters these days, it’s that they love a fighter; someone not afraid to mix it up with the media, challenge the establishment, and berate “woke” companies and institutions. 

Donald Trump was not the first to popularize this political style. But, he was the first to successfully marry the Tea Party culture warrior with the populist economic and anti-corporate pugilist. Long gone are the days of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” or Mitt Romney’s traditional pro-business “corporations are people” rhetoric. The GOP base wants someone who can throw a punch — or two, or three — at everyone and everything. 

GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis has based his entire political persona, and most likely his 2024 presidential campaign, on fighting everything from the media, to Disney, to the College Board. A 2022 re-election ad features him dressed as a “Top Gun” fighter pilot training his “students” on how to “dogfight” against the “corporate media.” His final ad of the campaign was literally entitled, “God Made A Fighter.”

He is betting that his more disciplined style of attack will be more appealing to a GOP base that has grown weary (and wary) of Trump’s chaotic methods of engagement. But, DeSantis’ constant base-stoking threatens his ability to be the kind of cross-over candidate who can pick up those independent and soft-GOP voters who have been supporting Democrats since Trump came onto the scene in 2016. In other words, DeSantis may be a more strategic and more polished version of Trump. But, is it a version that can win a general election?

Enter former South Carolina governor and U.N. Secretary Nikki Haley, who announced her bid for the White House on Wednesday in sunny and warm downtown Charleston. Her message was more “happy warrior” than “culture warrior.” “We are ready to move past stale ideas and faded names of the past,” she said. “And more than ready for a new generation to lead us into the future.” 

She, and her surrogates who introduced her, made plenty of references to her toughness and fortitude. In his remarks before Haley took the stage, GOP Rep. Ralph Norman, a member of the Freedom Caucus, described her as a “gentle but powerful strength.”  

“Don’t let her calm demeanor fool you,” Norman said. “She’s got an iron fist in a velvet glove.” 

In her remarks, Haley called herself a “tough-as-nails woman” who has been “shaking up the status quo my entire life.”

She didn’t stay away from the culture war issues, criticizing those who, she says, promote “self-loathing.” 

“Joe and Kamala say we are racist,” she said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. My immigrant parents know it. The first minority female governor in history can tell you America is not a racist country.” 

But, fundamentally, her message centered on a fighting style that can attract new voters, not one that alienates them. 

“My message to my fellow Republicans,” she said, “we’ve lost the popular vote in seven of eight elections. That ends today. If you are tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.” The “new” generation line was a not-so-veiled reference to the man who has not only lost the popular vote twice, but whose endorsed candidates also flopped in 2022. 

Can her message work? Are GOP voters ready for a candidate who is less antagonistic, less pugilistic and more optimistic? 

There is a big swath of the Republican electorate that says they want a candidate who is more “electable” than Donald Trump. But, they also really like the Trump style and swagger. Can Haley’s “soft power = electoral success” pitch win over those voters? That’s a question we’ll have to wait for a few months to answer. But, in these last few years, that message hasn’t gotten much traction in GOP primary contests. 

Meanwhile, Haley can also hope that Trump and DeSantis spend more of their time focused on one another than on the former South Carolina governor. As the two T-Rexes battle for supremacy, Haley can stay out of the fray and emerge later in the campaign as an appealing alternative. This was the path that Sen. John Edwards took in 2004. It didn’t get him the nomination, but it did get him a spot on the ticket. 

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