By Arul Louis
New York, Feb 15 (IANS): With the odds stacked against her, Nimrata Nikki Haley came from virtual anonymity to pull off first, a seat on South Carolina's legislature and, then, the governorship of the conservative southern state as a Republican.
Can the independent-minded Indian American woman now pull it off in her run for the Republican Party's presidential nomination against a formidable candidate, former President Donald Trump?
A poll by Yahoo and YouGov last week showed her with just 5 per cent support in her party, with Trump leading at 37 per cent and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at 35 per cent in an open field with several candidates including former Vice President Mike Pence trailing her at 4 per cent.
Having been underestimated as a woman, she threw a challenge in the Twitter video announcing her candidacy: "You should know this about me: I don't put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you're wearing heels".
And her heels have smashed glass ceilings, making her the first woman and the first non-White to become South Carolina's governor and the first Indian American to hold a US cabinet position.
A canny politician, she stepped into the race warily after initially saying that she wouldn't run if Trump would.
So far, Trump has held his vicious tongue and keyboarding when it comes to Haley, focusing his barbs on DeSantis, who is seen as his main rival.
He tweeted on Truth Social, his social media outlet: "Nikki has to follow her heart, not her honour. She should definitely run!"
It may be more than just magnanimity towards Haley whom he appointed to his cabinet.
The Yahoo-YouGov poll found that in a straight contest between Trump and DeSantis, the Florida governor was ahead by 4 per cent, 45 to 41.
But in a three-way race with Haley, where her support rose to 11 per cent, Trump came out on top with 38 per cent to 35 per cent for De Santis, considered a likely candidate although he hasn't announced his run.
So, it would be for Trump to welcome Haley in the race - along with others - to split the Republican primary votes against him.
And, he can leave it to other possible rivals to bash her.
The fact that overall the race for presidential nominations is unsettled without a majority for Trump and with the other leading figure, DeSantis, not yet formally in the race, may have a strategic opening for her.
It gives her a lead to build her profile. nationally.
She presents herself as the "new generation" leader for her party -- a subliminal reference to the quarter century between her 51 years and Trump's 76.
She also pointed out in her video that the Republican Party lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections.
Her state, South Carolina, is the third state where Republicans will be polled to elect the party candidate and the larger than the other two, New Hampshire and Iowa.
A good showing there could raise her standing in the primaries and caucuses in the remaining 47 states.
However, she could face a rival from the state, Senator Tim Scott, who is exploring a run for the Republican nomination.
He is an African American who first got into the Senate when Haley nominated him to fill a vacancy.
Vice President Kamala Harris who ran for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2020 election dropped out when her support after hitting as high as 15 per cent plunged to 5 per cent - the point Haley is starting from. (RealClear Politics consolidation of various polls places her lower with 3.75 per cent backing.)
Regardless of the final outcome in the Republican intra-party elections, the primaries and the caucuses, she would have raised her national profile.
She may even end up as the vice presidential candidate although the odds are diminished by the fact that the two likely winners, Trump and DeSantis, are from a neighbouring southeast state and traditionally the ticket has geographic diversity.
All through her political career, she has shown an independent defining streak bucking the party's traditions and leaders.
In one of her signature moves as governor, she had the flag of the Confederacy, the secessionist southern states that fought to maintain slavery, removed from the state headquarters campus, fighting the traditionalists who wanted to hold aloft the symbol of racism.
After two years as the UN permanent representative, she quit in 2018, a rare Trump cabinet appointee to leave on own terms and with no apparent rancour.
She criticised Trump for continuing to claim he won the 2020 election which was a factor in the January 6, 2021 riots that tore into the Capitol building housing Congress.
She said of the Republican Party in an interview to Politico, "We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn't have, and we shouldn't have followed him, and we shouldn't have listened to him".
Haley's relationship with Trump has been tenuous.
One of the early "Never Trumpers", she successively supported two of his rivals in the 2016 race for the Republican nomination, which he won in defiance of the party establishment, but backed him as the party candidate.
Trump's proxies like Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson have instead attacked her.
"It wasn't that long ago that Nikki Haley explained immigrants are more patriotic than you are," he said.
A fighter, Haley wears her Indian and immigrant heritage as a badge of honour.
She said in her Twitter video: "I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants, not black, not white. I was different."
And she turned that to her advantage as a sign of patriotism riling the likes of Carlson: "My parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America".
Her father Ajit Singh Randhawa sat behind her wearing a turban when she appeared for the Senate hearings for her confirmation to the cabinet post, and she showed pictures of him in her video.
She converted to her husband's Methodist sect of Christianity when they married, but continued to visit Gurdwaras and the couple went to the hallowed Amritsar Golden Temple while visiting India.
As a Republican, Haley is in the minority of her Indian American community.
The community is solidly behind the Democratic Party, with 65 per cent behind President Joe Biden and only 28 per cent for Trump in 2020, but it showed an erosion from 2016 when backing for Hillary Clinton was 77 per cent and 16 per cent for Trump, according to AAPI Data.
Haley's standing in the community has not been polled and she has supporters and very vocal detractors among Asian Indians.
But her announcing her candidacy marks another milestone for Indian Americans, a group making headway into US politics.
M R Rangaswami, a community leader, summed it up: "It is exciting to see another Indian American step up to run for the highest office in the US".
The founder of Indiaspora, a global organisation that works in a non-partisan manner to promote the engagement of the Indian diaspora in political and civic life, added, "It is gratifying to see our community participate in all facets of public service".
Rangswami noted, "Over the past decade, we have witnessed our community going from no representation to now having a Vice President and five members of Congress".
Another Indian American politician, also the former governor of Louisiana, another southern state, Bobby Jindal ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but dropped out when his support barely moved beyond 1 per cent.
A conservative, Haley brings to the race experience in international affairs as the US permanent representative at the United Nations and governance as the head of South Carolina, a combination that DeSantis lacks - and a robust sense of patriotism and her version of "America First".
Declaring that it is "a great day in South Carolina". she boasts of bringing businesses to her state when she was governor, notably Boeing which set up a facility to make its 787 aircraft that India has ordered.
But most of all an opposition to the extreme left that she tries to make the Democratic Party's identity.
"Some people see America and see vulnerability," she said in the video and as images of Harris and other Democrats floated on the screen, she intoned, "Socialist left sees an opportunity to rewrite history."
Acknowledging that the US had shortcomings, she said, "Even on our worst day, we are blessed to live in America", adding that for real "evil" in the world turn to China for "genocide" and Iran for the killing of protesters.
"China and Russia are on the march" and "they think we can be bullied,a she said threatening a hard response.
She has set up a political action committee, Stand for America PAC, which has raised $17 million.
To build support for her, it distributed campaign funds in the 2020 Congressional elections to 38 Republican candidates around the country, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by Open Secrets, a political finance watchdog.