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Nikki Haley heads to Iowa as White House chatter grows: 'She's going down the checklist'

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Nikki Haley in Bamberg

Nikki Haley, former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, speaks to students at Richard Carroll Elementary School in Bamberg in April 2019. File/Andy Shain/Staff

Since leaving the United Nations last year, Nikki Haley's moves have been closely watched for signs that the former South Carolina governor will run for the White House in 2024.

A new advocacy group, a new book and a series of high-profile speaking engagements were seen as steps toward a presidential bid.

Now Haley is heading to Iowa.

"You go to Iowa for one reason — and it's not for the food," said Rick Tyler, a top aide in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign. 

Haley will headline Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's 2020 kickoff campaign fundraiser called the Roast and Ride on June 15 — putting her in the state that begins the presidential primary season every four years. Ernst's 2015 Roast and Ride drew seven GOP White House hopefuls, including S.C. Sen. Lindsey Graham. 

Haley's staff quickly pointed out that the former United Nations ambassador was invited to headline the Ernst fundraiser, as well as others outside of early primary states.

Haley also has top billing at upcoming campaign events for West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, and she is the featured speaker at next week's gala for anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C. And she has headlined fundraisers in New York for four Republican female senators and top GOP donors.

"Ambassador Haley has no plan to run for political office," Haley spokeswoman Chaney Denton said Friday. "America is the greatest country in the world, and she believes we all have a part to play in keeping it that way. For her, that means using the power of her voice to stand up for conservative candidates and policies that make America stronger."

The Ernst campaign said Haley coming to Iowa is about supporting the senator, who is seeking a second term, and nothing more.

"Running for president isn’t a requirement when speaking at Roast and Ride, and we’ve hosted fantastic speakers in the past, including Sen. Tim Scott and congressman Trey Gowdy (both from South Carolina), who weren’t running," Ernst campaign senior adviser Brook Ramlet said.

Having one of the strongest GOP campaign surrogates outside of the White House visit Iowa is a boon for Ernst, but Haley benefits, too.

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"It's good for a politician's long-term ambitions and allows them to build relationships with activists, donors and reporters on the ground," said Rob Godfrey, a former top Haley campaign aide.

As for any speculation about Haley running in 2020, she has spoken with Trump about campaigning for him as the race heats up next year, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation.

Even if Trump suddenly bows out of the running for a second term, the conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party would back Vice President Mike Pence in such a short election window.

"But he'll need a vice president," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said, "and she's available."

More realistically, Haley is seen as a 2024 candidate when the GOP nomination is up for grabs.

"Her actions are positioning herself for a presidential run whether she wants to admit it or not," Tyler said. 

Consider her three-month-old advocacy group Stand for America. An email blast sent to supporters Friday reads like a campaign stump speech.

"As the Left weaponizes its activists with misinformation, it’s important for ordinary Americans to have access to the truth," the email read. "With so many young Americans flocking to socialism, it’s important to have a place for young conservatives to feel at home."

Many of her speeches this year have taken place before state and local business organizations, whose members include potential campaign contributors, as well as Jewish groups, who support Haley for her fierce backing of Israel when she was U.N. ambassador. 

The description of her new book, "With All Due Respect," coming out in November, includes a line that suggests someone seeking higher office: "This book reveals a woman who can hold her own — and better — in domestic and international power politics, a diplomat who is unafraid to take a principled stand even when it is unpopular, and a leader who seeks to bring Americans together in divisive times."

And by going to Iowa for Ernst, she will meet voters crucial to winning the White House who expect to speak with presidential candidates often, Sabato said.

"You can't start too early with all the competition that's coming," he said. "She's going down the checklist."

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