CHARLESTON, S.C.—Nikki Haley, the former Republican South Carolina governor, kicked off her presidential campaign with a packed rally in Charleston on Wednesday morning, telling hundreds of supporters that "America is not past our prime, it’s just that our politicians are past theirs."
Haley, 51, framed her presidential bid as a contrast with the older generation of political leadership, taking aim at both 80-year-old President Joe Biden and 76-year-old former president and Republican candidate Donald Trump.
"We won’t win the fight for the 21st Century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th Century," said Haley, warning that the United States is "spiraling toward socialism" under Biden’s watch.
Haley is the first major candidate to enter the Republican primary since Trump announced his bid in the fall. The former governor, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by Trump, portrayed herself as a political outsider. She stated during her remarks that she would have been part of the group that held up Kevin McCarthy’s election as speaker of the House and endorsed policies such as term limits for Congress which are favored by anti-establishment candidates. She said D.C. politicians spend too much time on television that should be spent working for their constituents.
Haley had tough words for her own party in the speech, saying Republicans have "lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections."
"Our cause is right, but we have failed to win the confidence of the majority of Americans," she said. "That ends today."
"If you’re tired of losing, then put your trust in a new generation," added Haley—a swipe at Trump, who famously quipped that he was so successful that his supporters would get "tired of winning."
Pro-Israel pastor John Hagee gave the opening prayer to a packed room of 500 supporters, before Haley entered to the song "Eye of the Tiger" and laid out her case that aging Democratic and Republican leadership have failed the country.
The Biden administration has "put too much trust in big government and too little trust in the American people," she said. "Joe Biden isn’t leading from behind; he’s not leading at all."
Democratic leadership has put the country’s national security at risk, with Iran "on the brink of getting a bomb" and China emerging as the "most disciplined enemy in history."
"When America is distracted, the world is less safe," she said, adding that when she was United Nations ambassador she "told the world that America would have the backs of our allies, and for those who did not have our backs—we’re taking names."
"The dictators, murderers, and thieves at the U.N. didn’t know what hit them," she said.
Rally attendees seemed interested in an alternative candidate to Trump, and several cited Haley’s "energy" and "optimism" as draws for them.
"The reason I love her so much is I know she’s going to run a really classy campaign," said Teres Jacobs, a South Carolina resident since 2009. "She’s going to stand on her own, she’s not going to rip apart other candidates."
Another South Carolina resident told the Washington Free Beacon he attended because Republicans need "someone who can win an election," and he thinks Haley is an electable option.
Cindy Warmbier, the mother of Otto Warmbier, who was murdered by North Korea during the Obama administration, introduced Haley and highlighted how she helped the family. Warmbier said the Obama administration had "told us to be quiet and be patient" after her son was imprisoned during a college trip to North Korea.
"Nikki told us the opposite [when she became UN ambassador] … she told us to be loud and fight back," said Warmbier, adding that Haley pushed for strong sanctions against the North Korean government.
Haley served as South Carolina governor from 2011 to 2017, when she joined the Trump administration. As U.N. ambassador, Haley backed Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. She was also a strong critic of the Russian and Chinese governments. In her speech, she said the United States is the only country that can stand up to China and vowed to put its communist regime in the "ash heap of history."
Haley is unlikely to be the only former Trump official to take on the former president. Other Republicans expected to join the field include former vice president Mike Pence and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, as well as Florida governor Ron DeSantis.