'May the best woman win.' Nikki Haley strives to balance gender and politics The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations tries to balance her identity as the only woman in the race for the GOP nomination with a Republican electorate that eschews identity politics.

Strong but 'feminine': how Nikki Haley navigates gender as only woman in the GOP race

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a primary that has been dominated from the beginning by former President Donald Trump, other Republican hopefuls have had to try to figure out how to stand out. For Nikki Haley, that has meant highlighting the traits that make her unique in the GOP field.

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NIKKI HALEY: As I set out on this new journey, I will simply say this - may the best woman win.

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MARTIN: As she announced her entry into the Republican primary in Charleston, S.C., in February, Haley also talked about growing up as the daughter of Indian immigrants. And as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, Haley is walking a tightrope as a Republican campaigning on identity.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At her campaign kickoff earlier this year, Nikki Haley promised to move the country forward.

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HALEY: And it will require doing some things we've never done.

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MCCAMMON: As she made that promise, she explicitly referenced her gender.

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HALEY: Like sending a tough-as-nails woman to the White House.

MCCAMMON: On the campaign trail, Haley often speaks about being a wife and mother, while also touting her experience as a former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor. Haley is unapologetically a woman running for president, as she demonstrated in the third debate hosted by NBC news after rival Vivek Ramaswamy made a snarky reference to her gender.

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VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?

MCCAMMON: Haley shot back and doubled down on the feminine symbolism.

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HALEY: Yes, I'd first like to say they're five-inch heels. And I don't wear them unless you can run in them.

MCCAMMON: That pairing, the idea that I'm a woman but I'm strong, and I'm strong but I'm still a woman, has been central to Haley's story about herself. Here's Haley speaking last year in California about her book profiling female leaders, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady.

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HALEY: There's nothing wrong with Iron Ladies being feminine. There's nothing wrong with Iron Ladies being great wives and great moms.

MCCAMMON: Haley talks about both her gender and her race in terms that align with traditional Republican ideas about America as a land of opportunity for everyone, those categories notwithstanding. As she campaigns, Haley has spoken about growing up in the only brown family in a small South Carolina town where everyone else was either Black or white. But she says her family believed in what she calls the promise of America.

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HALEY: This is not about identity politics. I don't believe in that. And I don't believe in glass ceilings either.

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HALEY: I believe in creating a country where anyone can do anything and achieve their own American dream.

MCCAMMON: That framing is no accident, says Mona Charen, policy editor at the conservative news site The Bulwark.

MONA CHAREN: The identity politics appeal has limits within the Republican primary.

MCCAMMON: Charen says Haley seems well aware of the inherent tension in reminding Republicans that she brings something different to their primary without leaning too hard on that messaging.

CHAREN: So she's doing a little bit of that - send a woman of the White House. But she's also saying that she wants to be judged on her qualifications and not as a female candidate. So she's trying to walk that tightrope, I think.

MCCAMMON: Haley walks that tightrope in part by stressing both her domestic and foreign policy credentials. Her approach appeals to voters like Mary Mayville, who attended a Haley campaign event last month in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

MARY MAYVILLE: I really don't care. I've been around a lot of leaders that are really good as women, and I've been around a lot of leaders that are really good that happened to be men.

MCCAMMON: What she cares a lot about is moving on from Trump and picking someone who can appeal to voters across the aisle. Mayville, who's an Air Force veteran, sees Haley as someone who can do that.

MAYVILLE: And I want someone who's going to take my sister-in-law, who's on the other side of the aisle, who likes Nikki Haley. And she said, I actually would vote for her because of the way she brings people together. So that's what I want from my country. I fought for my country, you know, I served. I'm like, I want that for my country. I don't want this nonsense.

MCCAMMON: Haley recently got a major funding boost from the Koch network, an influential group of conservative donors who've called for an alternative to Trump. But with Haley still trailing far behind the frontrunner in Republican primary polls, she'd have to persuade many more voters in states like New Hampshire that she has the experience and the background needed to bring the party and the country together.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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