Democrats have groaned over the campaign return of Donald Trump and have braced for the unknown in an untested Ron DeSantis.
But now, in the earliest days of the 2024 presidential cycle, the party in power is facing a new challenge: how to handle Nikki Haley.
The former South Carolina governor’s entrance into a wide-open field draws an obvious contrast with Trump, who Republicans have hesitated to take on too soon. For Democrats, it puts them in an unfamiliar spot: defending 80-year-old Biden against a 51-year-old rival hoping to be the first female president.
“If you haven’t figured out how to get this octogenarian off the stage, you really don’t know what you’re doing,” said Rina Shah, a Republican strategist and campaign veteran. “You don’t know how to move forward.”
Biden has, of course, faced female White House opponents before – the most famous being his own vice president, Kamala Harris, with whom he managed to turn an occasionally bitter rivalry into a partnership in his administration. He also competed against nearly half a dozen other female candidates.
When Biden prevailed, for many Democrats it was bittersweet. They saw him beating Trump, but scores still wanted a woman to lead the country. They are now assessing the optics of Haley running against an older white man, and Republicans are also contemplating what it could mean for their own bench.
“Gender and race are part of the calculation now because there are only two formally announced people,” Shah said.
As Haley tells it, her campaign is not going to emphasize “identity politics,” a term both sides of the aisle use in different ways to highlight personal identifiers. But she’s already made gender and age a part of the early contours of her campaign.
In her announcement speech on Wednesday, Haley said tackling global problems “will require doing some things we’ve never done – like sending a tough-as-nails woman to the White House.” At another point, she said, “may the best woman win” the election.
Republicans have in the past struggled at appealing to female voters and recruiting more diverse candidates, and Democrats have often jumped at the chance to send more women to higher office. Haley’s bid, just days after newly elected Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered the rebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union, is a clear indication of the GOP’s focus on broadening their candidate pool for higher office.
“We’re talking about the presidential primary process. Republicans are actually going to come out looking really diverse at this,” Shah said.
For Democrats, it presents a complicated situation. It’s no secret that many in the party want someone other than Biden to be the nominee. Some recent polling indicates that even a majority of Democrats would like an alternative.
But many in the party and some close to the administration were quick to defend the president, noting that his agenda and track record supporting people from different backgrounds is what makes him a more compelling choice.
Charlotte Clymer, a writer and Democratic political strategist, argued that Haley’s presence as a female contender in the race is not sufficient enough without inclusive policies.
“Representation means nothing without advocacy,” Clymer said.
“I would rather vote for a man who I know is going to fight for my rights over a woman who makes a mockery of my humanity with her empty pandering,” she added.
Other Democrats note that Biden has filled top positions in government with a wide range of talent, showing a commitment to many different voices and ideas.
“President Biden has one of the most diverse, multi racial coalitions we have seen in recent political history,” said one Democratic strategist who formerly worked for Hillary Clinton.
“He has prioritized elevating women, people of color, young people and other minority constituencies throughout his presidency. That approach to governing, and that enduring coalition will help him ward off any critiques that would be expected of an 80-year-old, white man running for reelection,” the campaign strategist said.
When Biden chose Harris – the first Black, Indian American and female vice president – to be his running mate, some had hoped she would be the heir-apparent for 2024. But that hasn’t happened as questions about Harris’s direction and role in the White House have piled up throughout the first term.
On Friday, Harris said “I intend to run” for vice president again alongside Biden, a phrase the president himself often uses to describe his reelection thought process.
But the idea that she may be eyeing the presidency is on the minds of Republicans and Democrats alike, especially as Haley entered the race.
“A hypothetical matchup between Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley, I think Nikki actually could pull that off,” Shah said.
Still, with every indication that Biden intends to launch another campaign, Democrats are currently navigating a GOP field that includes just Haley and Trump.
The current scarcity of Republican candidates so far allows Haley, still relatively new to the national stage, to set up an inherent identity contrast with Biden. She’s already addressed what she sees as his inadequacies directly, at times skirting questions that she’ll have to face off against what’s expected to be a crowded field of GOP aspirants first.
While some Democrats have made Biden’s age a topic of debate, Haley wasted no time in crafting a message around what she describes as being in need of “a new generation to lead us into the future.”
“We’re ready. Ready to move past the stale ideas and faded names of the past,” she said, kicking off her bid.
Haley got an unexpected bump of momentum the day after her campaign launch when CNN anchor Don Lemon made a remark about her being past her “prime” in a segment about her candidacy, going on to say that women who are not in their 20s, 30s or 40s are not considered “prime” ages.
Republican women seized on Lemon’s remarks.
“So Don Lemon says Nikki Haley is past her prime as a woman. Didn’t take long for the first sexist attack on a female Republican candidate for president,” tweeted Karin Lips, a lawyer and conservative activist, garnering a retweet from Haley.
Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) added: “Nothing terrifies liberals more than successful conservative women. When liberals feel threatened, they resort to sexist nonsense like this.”
Democrats have often contended that the media’s coverage of female candidates is sexist. When Clinton ran in 2016, she built a messaging and fundraising apparatus around what would be a historic moment towards more gender equality. Four years later, and after four years of Trump, several prominent female candidates launched bids of their own. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made persistence a key part of her slogan, reminding voters of when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to quiet her on the Senate floor.
With Biden likely to be at the top of the ticket again, Democrats are dancing carefully around his age, as well as less-than-ideal options of again putting forward a white man at the top of the ticket when both parties are looking for more diversity.
While he may be the face of the Democratic Party for now, some say his policy priorities, Cabinet and top aides speak for themselves and are hoping they will shield him from too much criticism.
“Joe Biden fights for all people. Nikki Haley fights for Nikki Haley,” Clymer said. “Marginalized communities will easily rally around Biden versus Haley.”
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This story was originally published February 20, 2023, 6:00 AM.