When Nikki Haley took the Republican presidential debate stage alongside her seven male rivals last month, she shone a spotlight on her gender only once – evoking a former British prime minister.
“This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,’” the former South Carolina governor interjected as Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy sparred during the Milwaukee debate.
Haley, the only female competitor in the GOP race, has not made her gender central to her campaign pitch. Instead, she has zeroed in on the need for a new generation of leadership.
Republican voters who are considering supporting Haley told CNN they welcome the fact that she doesn’t lead with her gender as she campaigns, but many said her experience as a mother and a military spouse were part of her appeal.
“It’s not necessary to point out that a female would bring a fresh perspective,” said Melinda Tourangeau, a Republican voter from New Hampshire. “She has one, she’s nailing it and I think that stands on its own merits.”
GOP strategists say that by simply showing up as who she is, and weaving elements of her gender into her pitch, Haley is likely to boost her support among suburban female voters – a constituency that helped fuel President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020.
“There’s no need for her to light her hair on fire and [stress] the fact that she’s a woman because she uses her ability and experience as a way to connect with voters,” said GOP strategist Alice Stewart, a CNN political commentator who advised former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann on her 2012 presidential bid. “What suburban women want is a candidate that’s going to speak the truth, and Nikki Haley is out there being truthful about Donald Trump’s record. She’s being truthful about what we can actually accomplish in the future on abortion.”
When Haley, a former US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, speaks on the campaign trail about personal experiences that have informed her policy positions, she underscores her identity as a mother, wife and female politician.
“I am pro-life because my husband was adopted, and I live with that blessing every day. I am pro-life because we had trouble having both of our children,” Haley has said in explaining her stance on abortion.
She expanded on that position at the Milwaukee debate last month in calling for a “respectful” approach to the divisive topic.
“Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions?” Haley said. “And can’t we all agree that we are not going to put a woman in jail or give her the death penalty if she gets an abortion?”
Haley also spoke of the difficulty of enacting a federal abortion ban, pointing to the difficulty in overcoming the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster.
It was a nuanced perspective for a GOP candidate, and one that caught voters’ attention.
“When she talked about abortion, I liked that because although she is totally pro-life, she is willing to make some concessions because she said it’s not about her. It’s about what the country thinks,” a female GOP voter from South Carolina told CNN after the debate. “She’s trying to meet people where they are or at least do away with late-term abortions and things like that.”
Haley’s campaign said it raised more than $1 million in less than 72 hours following that first primary debate. The campaign also said it raised more online in the 24 hours after the debate than it had on any other day since Haley launched her presidential bid in February.
GOP strategists believe that Haley’s approach to the abortion issue was a key factor in that surged interest.
“I think there are two key issues that she addressed on the debate stage that are helping in fueling their fundraising drive, and the nuanced position on abortion is one and her strong support for Israel,” Stewart said.
In her stump speeches, Haley also draws from personal experiences – highlighting her role as mother – to speak against the participation of transgender girls in girls’ sports.
“The idea that we have biological boys playing in girls’ sports, it is the women’s issue of our time,” she said during a CNN town hall in June. “My daughter ran track in high school. I don’t even know how I would have that conversation with her.”
Similarly, when Haley speaks about standing up for veterans’ families, she speaks about her husband, Michael Haley, a major in the South Carolina National Guard whose brigade deployed to Africa earlier this year in support of the United States Africa Command. He previously served in Afghanistan in 2013 when his wife was serving as governor, which meant she was a working mom alone at home with two children.
“The first three months when he deployed to Afghanistan, one of them was crying every night,” Haley said at the Iowa State Fair this summer. “I feel for every military family out there because it is survival mode.”
When asked about her gender, Haley’s campaign noted that it is a part of who she is but not her only defining trait.
“Nikki is proud to be a woman, a military spouse, a mom, a governor, an ambassador, and an accountant. All these experiences make her the tough and honest leader she is. She brought this toughness to the establishment as South Carolina governor. She brought it to the UN when she took on the world’s dictators. And she will bring it to the White House,” campaign spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement.
Haley is the fifth prominent Republican woman to run for president, following Margaret Chase Smith in 1964; Elizabeth Dole, who dropped out before the 2000 primaries; Bachmann in 2012; and Carly Fiorina in 2016.
In comparison to Haley, Fiorina spoke more often and more directly about her gender. That move was dictated, at least in part, by Trump attacking her looks and the leading opposition candidate also being a woman.
“[Whether] or not you’re ready to … support me, in your heart of hearts, every single one of you know you would love to see me debate Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina told voters on the stump.
Haley’s competition this cycle is different, and so is her tact.
“She is a woman, but she leads with her merit and experience,” said Iowa state Sen. Chris Cournoyer, a Haley supporter who touted the fact that the former governor does not play the “woman card.”
At an August event in New Hampshire for female Republican voters, Haley’s identity as a woman was celebrated.
“Nikki Haley is an empowered woman, who empowers women, and she really gets it as a former state representative,” Elizabeth Girard, the president of the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, said as she introduced Haley, who served three terms in the South Carolina House prior to her election as governor.
But when Haley took the stage – facing a gaggle of female voters – she didn’t tailor her message to the audience. She ticked through her regular stump speech, closing out with her signature call for a new generational leader and a candidate who can win the general election.
Many of the potential female voters in the room that day appreciated Haley’s approach.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Kim Rice, 50, told CNN after the event when asked about Haley not making her gender a focus of her pitch. “I don’t think that should be the reason people vote for her. I think her policy points are her strongest points. That’s what should draw people to her.”