TAMPA — In the 2010 governor’s race, Nikki Haley was tight-lipped about the historical aspects of her candidacy – the facts that she was a woman, a minority and, if elected, would be the youngest governor in the nation.
Haley’s remarks on her historic role in S.C. politics largely were limited to being “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants.”
Fast forward to Tuesday, as Haley spoke to reporters from across the country in Tampa. The first-term Republican governor from Lexington was a changed person, talking out about sex and race.
“I hope that I appeal to women. I hope that I appeal to minorities,” Haley told a panel of reporters at USA Today’s “Newsmaker” series.
Faced with changing U.S. demographics, the national Republican Party hopes to make Haley and other conservative-minded women and minorities the new faces of the GOP – a role that Haley embraced Tuesday.
The Republican Party must expand its followers to include Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing demographic, and African-Americans, who showed their political muscle in 2008 with their support for President Barack Obama. The GOP also must stake a new claim for the support of women voters who traditionally have aligned themselves with the Democratic Party.
Tuesday’s lineup of speakers at the GOP convention included elected officials that Republicans hope can reach out to those voters – Haley; U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, the first Republican African-American congressman from South Carolina in more than a century; Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz, who is Latino; and Utah congressional candidate Mia Love, an African American.
Scott, who delivered a two-minute speech at Tuesday’s convention, said he does play a role in convincing minorities their values match up with those of the Republican Party.
“Does it help to have a different face giving a conservative message? Sure, sometimes it does,” said Scott.
But, he said, Republicans should not create a race-based strategy to reach more minorities.
“Instead, we need to focus on the primary message of the (Romney) campaign and make sure everyone feels welcome in a discussion about the future of this country,” he said.
But the GOP continues to struggle with diversity.
Forty-six of the delegates, about 2 percent, at the Republican National Convention are African American, including South Carolina’s national committee member Glenn McCall of Rock Hill, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Still, that is up from 36 in 2008.
Polls consistently show Obama has an advantage with both women and minority voters. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Obama with 94 percent support among black voters and leading Romney by a 2-to-1 margin among Latino voters. A CBS News poll found that Obama had a 10-percentage-point advantage over Romney with women.
Democrats challenge new label
Back in South Carolina, Democrats were pushing back on Haley’s new national role as a Romney surrogate to minority and women voters.
The Charleston-based S.C. New Democrats and state Rep. Mia Butler, D-Richland, an African-American woman, encouraged voters Tuesday to judge Haley on her record, not her rhetoric.
“Gov. Haley has been a loyal foot soldier in the Republican war on women since the day she got to Columbia,” Garrick said in a statement. “It’s a sad day in South Carolina when our first female governor’s actions, directly and deliberately, set women back at a time when we need to be working together to move our state and each other forward.”
Examples that Butler cited included Haley’s vetoes of:
State money for the state’s 15 rape-crisis centers, which the governor called “special interests,” a veto later overridden by lawmakers
• Providing parents of girls with information about HPV, a sexually transmitted virus.
Haley also angered some when she called a Charleston reporter a “little girl” on a national radio show after the reporter wrote a story that Haley disagreed with. Haley later apologized for the remark.
“If you told me that was (U.S. Rep.) Todd Akin’s record, I’d believe you,” said Phil Noble, president of the S.C. New Democrats. “And that can’t possibly be the kind of comparison the Romney people were looking for when they tapped Gov. Haley to be a featured speaker at their convention.”
Haley: Women ‘still learning’
The national press questioned Haley Tuesday about her new role as a GOP surrogate to women and minority voters. Most of the questions for Haley were about the GOP’s challenges in appealing to the two groups.
“Women are still learning about Gov. Romney. They’re still doing their homework,” Haley said of Romney’s lagging support among women.
Haley also threw bombs at the Democratic Party for using the controversy over U.S. Senate candidate Akin’s remarks about rape as a way to appeal to women voters.
“Women are very thoughtful. Women are not one-issue voters,” Haley said, listing the economy, health care, education and jobs as the topics that top women’s list of important issues. “Those are the things that women care about and for them to make it like women are one-issue voters is demeaning to women. I tell you it’s offensive.”
Haley added she is making inroads with minorities, particularly Indian-Americans who, she said, traditionally vote for Democrats. “They have been Democrats because they thought that’s what minorities were supposed to be,” Haley said, predicting minorities will vote for Romney because the economy and jobs are important to them.
Women are not one-issue voters and minorities care about the economy, agreed Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon. But the groups’ alliance with the Democratic Party will be tough to crack.
“The fact is, Democrats are going to get more women votes,” Huffmon said. “There is a partisan gender gap that is alive and well.
“And in excess of 95 percent of black voters will vote for Barack Obama.”
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.