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Nikki Haley's latest target on the campaign trail? Kamala Harris

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to members of the media during a campaign event at Thunder Tower Harley Davidson Monday, Feb. 12 in Elgin, S.C. On the campaign trail, Haley has stepped up attacks against Vice President Kamala Harris, drawing parallels between herself and the vice president.
Sean Rayford
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AP
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks to members of the media during a campaign event at Thunder Tower Harley Davidson Monday, Feb. 12 in Elgin, S.C. On the campaign trail, Haley has stepped up attacks against Vice President Kamala Harris, drawing parallels between herself and the vice president.

Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley has been highlighting concerns about President Biden's age and mental acuity on the campaign trail, and using them as a launching point for attacks on Vice President Kamala Harris.

"It's either gonna be me, or it's gonna be Kamala Harris," Haley warned while campaigning in Orangeburg, S.C. last weekend.

"Do we really want to have a country in disarray, and a world on fire, and have two 80-year-olds as our candidates?" Haley asked the crowd, as she campaigned ahead of South Carolina's Republican primary on Feb. 24.

The idea that she represents a new generation of leadership has been a major theme of her campaign. Haley has been focusing many of her attacks on both Biden, 81, and former President Trump, 77, pointing out their ages and recent lapses.

In Orangeburg, Haley referred to last week's special counsel report, which questioned Biden's memory.

"I wish him well. I do. But this is serious," Haley said. "And we need to be very cautious of what's happening, because Russia, China and Iran are paying attention to every bit of this."

President Biden, holds hands with Vice President Kamala Harris as he speaks at a reception in recognition of Black History Month in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 6.
Andrew Harnik / AP
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AP
President Biden, holds hands with Vice President Kamala Harris as he speaks at a reception in recognition of Black History Month in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 6.

And then, Haley made a bold — and unsubstantiated — claim.

"My bet is 30 days from now, I don't think Joe Biden's gonna be the nominee," Haley predicted. "You're gonna have a female president of the United States."

To be clear, Biden is almost certain to be the Democratic nominee. Haley provided no evidence for her speculation that he will step aside — nor for the suggestion that Harris is poised to step in anytime soon.

Asked about Haley's prediction by NPR's Tamara Keith during a White House press briefing on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre she had to be cautious about commenting on the campaign as a federal employee.

"The president is, obviously, you know his intentions for 2024," Jean-Pierre said.

As for Haley: "I'm not sure what crystal ball she's looking at, but it's not the one we have," Jean-Pierre added.

It's a theme Haley has brought up repeatedly in recent months, warning Republican audiences about the prospect of Harris stepping in.

In January, campaigning in Conway, S.C., Haley said the thought of a Harris presidency "should send a chill up every person's spine."

By doing so, Haley is highlighting Biden's age and Harris' high disapproval ratings among Republican primary voters, says Ange-Marie Hancock, a political scientist at Ohio State University.

"Republican primary voters are primed with negative views of Kamala Harris," explained Hancock, who's also the curator of the Kamala Harris Project, a group of scholars studying Harris' vice presidency.

Hancock points to what she calls a "drumbeat" of attacks on Harris in right-wing circles, including Trump's use of racist birther theories to falsely suggest Harris may not be eligible to be vice president. Trump has directed similar false attacks at Haley.

Hancock says Haley appears to be drawing on those themes as she campaigns for Republican primary votes.

"So she's using dog whistles to counteract some dog whistles that may be levied against her," Hancock said.

That strategy appears unlikely to work for Haley, who's been polling far behind Trump in her home state. But Hancock says it may offer a preview of the kinds of general election messages that Trump and other Republicans will be using against Biden and Harris in the months to come.

A Haley campaign spokeswoman noted in a statement to NPR that Harris has been tasked with the administration's border security policy and said, "It's not surprising that she is viewed even more unfavorably [than] Joe Biden."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.