Nikki Haley has once again landed the breakout zinger of the third Republican debate in Miami, dismissing rival Vivek Ramaswamy as “scum” for judging her daughter’s use of TikTok.
Its not the first time the former South Carolina governor has managed to get one up on the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur.
“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Mrs Haley quipped in the second debate. The throwaway comment that seemed to slip out from irritation became the most memorable line of the evening.
Following her strong performances in the debates, Mrs Haley has emerged as Donald Trump’s main rival, polling behind him in the key New Hampshire Republican primary and overtaking Ron DeSantis.
Her ability to switch between red button topics such as foreign policy, the United Auto Workers strike and abortion has seen some anti-Trump donors, unnerved by Mr DeSantis’s lacklustre campaign, begin to pivot to her camp.
But does Mrs Haley, 51, have what it takes to usurp the Florida governor and take on her former boss Mr Trump for the Republican nomination?
Born to immigrant parents from India’s Punjab region, who moved to the US in the 1960s, Mrs Haley has frequently claimed “coming to America was the best decision they ever made”.
Yet the mother-of-two grew up as somewhat of an outsider in the small rural city of Bamberg, which then had a population of 2,500.
She previously recounted the “pain” she felt when the owners of a roadside fruit stand called the police on her university lecturer father, Ajit Singh Randhawa, who wore a turban.
But the resilience this cultivated would help shape her to become the fiery politician she is today.
Mrs Haley started her accounting career from the age of 13 when she would do the books for her family’s fashion boutique.
After attending Clemson University, where she met her husband Michael Haley, she worked as an accounting supervisor for a recycling company in Charlotte, before returning to the family business.
Racist attacks and resilience
In 2004, feeling restless, Mrs Haley decided to run for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, challenging the legislature’s longest-serving incumbent Larry Koon.
Her rival’s campaign subjected her to racist attacks, sending out leaflets that showed her pictured with her father in his turban and called her by her birth name Nimrata N. Randhawa – but the low blows were not enough to derail her.
Years later, when she ran for the governor’s mansion, she would once again be the victim of racism when Jake Knotts, a state senator, called her “a f-----g raghead” on an internet broadcast.
As the first female Indian American governor, one of Mrs Haley’s coups in office was having the Confederate flag removed from South Carolina’s statehouse following the brutal mass murder of a black congregation in an attack by a white supremacist.
Using her charm and charisma to woo foreign investors, Mrs Haley also added 400,000 jobs to the state by the time she left to become Mr Trump’s ambassador to the UN.
Mrs Haley has for years been walking the narrow tightrope between disdain and support for Mr Trump. She viciously attacked him during the 2016 primaries and, expecting him to lose against Hillary Clinton, had been ready to position herself as the GOP alternative to the billionaire.
While she did not entertain his claims that the 2020 election was stolen, she also refused to condemn him and alienate his base.
Now, years after Mrs Haley said with certainty that Mr Trump would not run for office again because he had “fallen so far”, he is 40 points ahead of his closest rival, Mr DeSantis.
Rina Shah, a former Republican adviser and political strategist, said Mrs Haley is the “viable first place” candidate able to take on Mr Trump.
“Her being able to perform at this level in the past two debates has turned the notion upside down that she came in looking to be Trump’s VP”, she told The Telegraph.
“She just had some stand-out answers that showed why she could be the candidate that is able to win a general election.”
“I do believe she is the candidate to be most worried about. I don’t think we ought to be too concerned about the polls. Because politics is the feeling. And anybody who’s watching these performances, isn’t putting her back in the category of a has-been.”
However, Christopher Galdieri, professor of politics at Saint Anselm’s College, is not so convinced.
“A lot of times you’ll see a candidate who’s on the rise, and then the question becomes, is she going to be able to keep attracting support? Or is this her ceiling?”
He said her ability to not make enemies, and not attack anybody apart from Mr Ramaswamy is “smart”.
“I guess it’s a question of can you continue to be ‘all things to all people’ enough to get you to be the alternative to Trump?”
One in six chance Trump won’t run
Prof Galdieri said that while it is unlikely any of the candidates will beat Mr Trump, there is a one in six chance an external event such as a criminal conviction could see the former president taken out of the race.
“They’re all sort of running this shadow race: just in case something happens, they want to be the first one on everybody’s mind.”
With regards to becoming vice president, both Mrs Haley and Mr Trump have knocked back the suggestion, but that could change in the months to come.
Last month at a rally in Michigan, Mr Trump described his seven Republican rivals as “job candidates” and said he did not see a vice president in the group.
Mrs Haley was more explicit, saying last month: “I think everybody that says, ‘she’s doing this to be vice president,’ needs to understand I don’t run for second.”
This article has been republished.