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Staley's rebuke shows how Haley has little room to play both sides in expected 2024 bid

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Dawn Staley and Nikki Haley (copy) (copy)

Former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley (left) poses for a photo with University of South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley in New York City in 2017 when Haley was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. 

A Twitter exchange last week revealed the challenges Nikki Haley faces as she positions herself for an expected White House bid.

In 2010, the daughter of Indian immigrants became a symbol of a GOP party seeking to broaden its minority support when she became South Carolina's governor.

In 2020, she's helping the reelection bid of a president known for stirring up racial tensions and winning less Black support than George H.W. Bush did 32 years ago.

Her fame came in the middle of the decade by leading efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse while consoling victims' families from the Emanuel AME church mass shooting by a racist gunman. 

That put her in a position to become United Nations ambassador and, more importantly, a presumed 2024 presidential frontrunner.

Haley's White House hopes rely on walking a line that grows more narrow — especially in the post-George Floyd racially charged country.

Her narrative is dependent how she handled the tragic events from five years ago, because it helps her stand out from GOP competitors and bolsters her credibility among Republicans who would like to see a return to the pre-2016 party.

But she now is taking partisan views shaped after Trump's election with messaging that has become more pointed and sharp than when she was in Columbia.

On the five-year anniversary of the S.C. House's final debate over removing the flag, Haley tweeted criticism of the WNBA's plan to honor Black Lives Matter when games resume this month. She also praised Kelly Loeffler, a Republican U.S. senator who co-owns a WNBA team, for "standing up to the mob."

That brought a rebuke from one of Haley's Black allies from when she was seen as a Republican governor developing ties with minorities.

Dawn Staley, a WNBA legend and the women's basketball head coach for the University of South Carolina and U.S. Olympic team, called Haley's tweet a sign of "ultimate division."

In the past, Haley and Staley's charities worked together. They visited each other at games or at their homes and called each other friends on social media.

But 2020 has changed so much.

Their relationship has been described a "celebrity friendship" based on a pair of well-known people who get along when it comes to their public lives. 

Shannon Bowen, a University of South Carolina professor who studies ethics in public relations, said the alliance helped them each boost their images as strong women who support other women and can cross partisan lines. But those kinds of relationships aren’t typically sustainable.

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“I’m not surprised there is contention over it, especially given the two of them have very different political worldviews,” Bowen said.

Bakari Sellers, a former S.C. lawmaker who is friends with both Haley and Staley, said it's presumptuous for anyone outside the two women to describe their relationship. That said, Sellers had his own issues with Haley's WBNA slam, tweeting that Haley knows "better than using race as political currency."

"Nikki is trying to thread that needle," Sellers said in an interview. "The biggest problem Nikki Haley has is that she wants to be president of United States in Donald Trump's Republican Party. I would prefer her to be herself."

What Haley now sees as politics, African Americans see this as a fight for dignity and humanity, Sellers said.

"Nikki can be on the wrong side of history if she wants to this time," he said. "This moment demands better of us all."

Haley and Staley aren't saying much right now. 

A spokeswoman for Haley did not respond last week to messages seeking comment. Staley declined an interview request.

But the coach revealed a little about her recent thinking in a discussion about race with The State newspaper on the fifth anniversary of the Confederate flag's removal on Friday.

Staley said she has a responsibility to speak out.

"I represent so many young Black ladies. I represent this community," she said. "And people do look to hear my voice and for me to speak out. I think not only is it necessary, but it's my duty to do that. I'll take whatever backlash that comes with that."

With more discussion about race across in the country, Staley said, "We’re going to have to push a little bit more and have those uncomfortable conversations."

She had one of those with Haley — over social media at least.

And it showed that Haley is finding it tougher to have it both ways.

Avery Wilks contributed to this report.

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