Could Nikki Haley Win Women Voters Back for Republicans?

She just might be her party‘s best ambassador to women skeptical of the GOP.

David Allio / Corbis

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s memoir about her unlikely rise to the top of the good-ol'-boy statehouse in a conservative state sounds a little like Sarah Palin's story.

Like Palin, Haley is young, just 40, and overcame considerable odds as an Indian-American raised in a small Southern town. But now, a rising star in the Republican Party, she seems to be biding her time, ruling out any chance at the vice presidency this year. It’s not likely she’ll be asked—after Palin, the party may want someone more experienced—but she endorsed Mitt Romney early, and could be helpful to him in combating the widening gender gap that threatens his candidacy.

Haley was in Washington on Thursday finishing up a weeklong book tour when she ran smack-dab into a political food fight over her party’s alleged war on women. Settling into a comfortable chair at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Haley was among friends. Her questioner, Liz Cheney, chairman of KeepAmericaSafe and the former vice president’s daughter, began by noting their lunch-hour talk was occurring at about the same time as Haley’s appearance the previous day on The View, an observation that invited a ripple of laughter from the audience.

Cheney said she hoped they could “elevate” the discussion, adding that the popular daytime show was “quite a low bar.” Haley politely laughed, agreeing it was “quite the experience,” but declined to throw more fuel on the fire. She had sparked a small uproar on the show by declaring, “Women don’t care about contraception. They care about jobs and their families." What she meant was that women don’t care only about contraception, and are not single-issue voters, a truism that President Obama also embraces.

Refining her answer under Cheney’s gentle prodding, Haley said, “I think the media’s a little frightened of women. I wear high heels, and it’s not a fashion statement. It’s ammunition.” More laughter.

Elected governor in 2010, Haley was widely touted as one of the GOP’s stars, and instantly mentioned as a potential vice-presidential contender. Penning a biography, Can’t Is Not an Option, early in her term suggests an ambition for national office much like another Republican up-and-comer, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose forthcoming book documents his life story as a Cuban-American.

“We are in the midst of attacks by mainstream media and the other party to portray Republicans as in a war with women,” Cheney said, trying to provoke a more partisan response from Haley. “I’m a huge fan of women, I think we’re great,” Haley enthused. “I’d love to see more women in office.” Perhaps still stung by her misstep on The View, she ducked Cheney’s invitation to join the melee, instead noting that she was inspired to run for office after hearing Hillary Clinton speak at the Furman Institute in South Carolina.

Clinton said all the reasons people tell you why you shouldn’t run, that’s why you should. Haley took the advice to heart, but found that no political consultant would take her money; they all thought her quest was hopeless. One suggested that since she had young children, she should stick to the school board. She persisted and defeated a 30-year incumbent to win a seat in the state legislature. When she confronted her party about putting votes on the record, instead of hiding behind voice votes, the leadership stripped her of her power to try to get her to back down. Instead, she ran for governor and won, and the first bill she signed made the change she wanted. A political opponent who later became a friend said of Haley, “You can stand her up at the gates of hell, and she won’t back down.”

What she wants everybody to know about her is that she’s tough, and she doesn’t whine, lessons she learned from her immigrant Sikh parents. “I was devastated,” she said, when women told her they would never run for office after watching the way she was attacked for an alleged extramarital affair. That was not the lesson she intended, she said, still marveling at the fact that a 38-year-old woman who is a minority could be elected governor of her state.

Haley has not had an easy time. Her approval ratings are in the thirties and her order that all state employees should answer the phone with “It’s a great day in South Carolina” was widely mocked. When a reporter noted that Clinton gets a hard time about her hair, and there have been questions about how much money Palin spends on clothes, Haley seemed relieved to be back on familiar turf. People tell her she should wear earrings, that she doesn’t look “finished.” “I’m allergic to metal,” she explained. On a recent trip to a rural county to announce jobs brought back from China, the media focused on her shoes.

“You’ve got to laugh it off,” she says. Besides, referring to her four-inch stilettos, “I’ve got a completely male Senate. Do I want to use these for kicking? Sometimes, I do.”