Nikki Haley’s supporters are quick to repeat a theme that has become central to her campaign: She has been underestimated before.
So when Ms. Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, recounted on Thursday evening what the former CNN anchor Don Lemon had said about her during a recent broadcast, the crowd of hundreds who had gathered to hear her speak erupted in applause.
Ms. Haley, who has couched her campaign message in a call for “a new generation of leaders,” encouraged the crowd to “leave the drama of the past” behind — a thinly veiled allusion to former President Donald J. Trump’s administration. And she repeated her calls for term limits and mental competency tests for elected leaders, adding that she was willing to be flexible about age ranges.
“We’ve got to make sure that these people are ready to fight — and I don’t care if you do it for ages 50 and over,” she told the crowd in Greer, in the northwest corner of South Carolina. “Because yes, I am in my prime.”
She added: “God bless Don Lemon. I just want to say, ‘Who’s in their prime now?’”
Ms. Haley, 51, was alluding to a moment in February when Mr. Lemon said that he was “uncomfortable” about Ms. Haley’s raising the question of age and mental competency among political leaders.
Ms. Haley “isn’t in her prime, sorry,” Mr. Lemon said. “A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”
Mr. Lemon later apologized for the remarks. He was ousted from CNN last week.
The line resonated in particular with women in the crowd, and several attendees said they saw Ms. Haley’s response to Mr. Lemon as a creative means of pointing out — and making fun of — a moment of sexism.
Yet, the energy that Ms. Haley can capture in a room like the one in Greer contrasts with her struggle to build national momentum in an increasingly crowded Republican primary field. She will most likely soon have to contend with the entry of a fellow South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott, into the race, as well as with the two candidates who are garnering the most attention and the bulk of the support in polls: Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
After her stump speech, as Ms. Haley greeted supporters and took photos with them, Rachel Dankel, a real estate agent in her 50s who is based in Greenville, S.C., said she had told Ms. Haley how much she appreciated her pushing back on Mr. Lemon’s words. When she first heard about his comment, she said, “I wanted to throw up.”
“I thought that was, to me, the worst thing that somebody could say,” she said. “That’s so degrading. You have men in their 80s, and they’re not over — they’re not too old?”
Ms. Haley, who was the first Republican presidential candidate to challenge Mr. Trump in the current campaign, has aimed to separate herself from the pack by taking early stances on issues like age limits among political leaders. Last week, she suggested in an interview with Fox News that President Biden, who is 80, would not live until the end of his second term if re-elected.
Ms. Haley has also raised money off Mr. Lemon’s comments. Her campaign website sells a beverage koozie that reads: “Past my prime? Hold my beer”
Ms. Haley’s campaign is counting on her in-state bona fides — she was a longtime State House member in a district close to the State Capitol and the first woman to serve as governor — to bolster her standing in the Palmetto State. The South Carolina primary is third on the Republican calendar, after Iowa and New Hampshire, and it is the Haley campaign’s belief that her home-state electorate will propel her to the top of the primary field.
And while she is polling in the low single digits in most national surveys, an April poll conducted by Winthrop University showed her with her 18 percent support in her home state, well behind Mr. Trump but within striking distance of Mr. DeSantis.
“There’s a certain segment out there that’s very excited about her running, and then there’s the hard-core Trumpists who are mad at her for running,” said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina Republican political strategist.
At the rally on Thursday, Christy Willis, 50, a teacher who is still undecided about whom she will support in 2024, said she had not heard about Mr. Lemon’s comments before hearing Ms. Haley repeat them on Thursday at the Cannon Center, an event space. After learning of the context, she said she had found the back-and-forth intriguing.
“It does open a discussion about ageism and sexism and feminism,” she said, referring to Mr. Biden’s age. “He’s allowed to do things that a woman probably would not be able to do.”
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