Haley isolated after Trump fallout

When a handful of potential Republican presidential hopefuls convene on Thursday for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), there will be one notable absence from the speaking lineup: Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyWill Pence primary Trump — and win? Noem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis MORE.

Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a potential 2024 White House contender, has found herself isolated from former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE and the populist wing of the GOP that he commands after a scathing interview with Politico in which she denounced her former boss and wrote off his future influence in Republican politics.

The fallout from Haley’s remarks underscores the risks associated with her strategy of criticizing Trump’s actions and establishing a separate political identity while at the same time trying to appeal to his base of supporters.

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“It’s a very fine line to walk for a long way between now and the Republican convention in 2024,” said Alex Conant, a GOP consultant and former adviser to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R-Fla.).

“Trump might run again, so you have to treat him as a potential competitor. But even if he doesn’t, he wants influence over who the party picks, and loyalty is what he values more than anything else. So it’s hard to build your own identity separate from him while maintaining loyalty and his support.”

Trump declined her request last week for a face-to-face meeting at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. He has indicated that he will exact revenge on Republicans whom he believes have crossed him, throwing Haley’s future political ambitions into uncertain territory.

Since a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Haley has wavered between sharply criticizing the former president and taking a more moderate tone toward him. At a GOP retreat the day after the riot, she said Trump’s actions “will be judged harshly by history,” according to Politico. But later that month, in an interview with Fox News’s Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamPsaki says Biden admin 'needs' Fox News in order to fight vaccine misinformation Biden walks fine line with Fox News Biden pokes at Fox hosts: They've had 'altar call' on vaccines MORE, Haley said that Trump did not deserve to be impeached for his role in the insurrection. More recently, she accused the media in an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal of trying to sow division among Republicans.

Still, Haley’s willingness to deliver a full-throated criticism of Trump — in the Politico interview, she said he had “let us down” — was an unusual tactic for a politician widely seen as eyeing a 2024 bid, a reality that those in Trump’s orbit are well aware of.

One GOP source told The Hill that Haley has been positioning herself for a presidential campaign since she left the Trump administration in 2018, but that she lacks a clear lane in the coming Republican primary and is struggling to figure out how to connect with GOP voters under Trump.

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“Haley has never understood the president and seems to not understand where the base of the party is,” the source said.

Other would-be hopefuls, by contrast, have largely hewed to Trump’s brand of right-wing populism, or at least avoided directly criticizing the former president, believing that his loyal base of supporters will be crucial to winning back the White House.

Haley has spoken at CPAC multiple times in the past, including last year as Trump entered his reelection campaign. A spokesperson for the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, did not respond to a question about whether Haley was invited to this year’s conference.

But prospective Republican presidential hopefuls have a tendency to show up at CPAC, especially after a losing election year. Former House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) and Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill MORE (R-Utah) delivered speeches at the 2009 conference. Both went on to run for president in 2012.

Likewise, CPAC 2013 drew a long list of speakers who would go on to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, including Rubio, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Only two people cited by TSA for mask violations have agreed to pay fine Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (R-Ky.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Trump himself.

CPAC 2021 has a full slate of potential 2024 candidates as well, virtually all of whom have allied themselves closely with Trump and his vision for the Republican Party.

Among them are Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate MORE (R-Texas) and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade Trio of Senate Republicans urges Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Mo.), all of whom joined a small group of Senate Republicans last month in challenging the certification of President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE’s Electoral College victory, even after the proceedings were disrupted by Trump’s supporters.

Another speaker at this year’s event, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida reports record 21,000 cases in single day, highest since start of pandemic Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Meadows says Trump World looking to 'move forward in a real way' MORE (R) — who won a hotly contested election in 2018 by playing up his pro-Trump bona fides — has emerged as something of a conservative darling for echoing the former president’s often freewheeling approach to the coronavirus pandemic over much of the past year.

Another potential presidential hopeful, South Dakota Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemSouth Dakota Gov. Noem says she doesn't plan to increase vaccine messaging Republican governors revolt against CDC mask guidance Western US airports face jet fuel shortage MORE (R), who has aggressively defended Trump’s legacy, is getting her own reelection fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago next week, hosted by the former president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly GuilfoyleKimberly GuilfoyleTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump unhappy with Guilfoyle backing Greitens: report Giuliani to stump for Greitens in Missouri MORE.

Haley’s approach has also prompted criticism from some of Trump’s critics, who have accused her of trying to play both conservative renegade and Trump acolyte.

“You can’t play both sides anymore Governor,” Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Biden asks Pentagon to examine 'how and when' to mandate COVID-19 vaccine for troops Stefanik calls Cheney 'Pelosi pawn' over Jan. 6 criticism MORE (R-Ill.), one of 10 House Republicans who voted last month to impeach Trump, tweeted. “Pick Country First or Trump First.”

But some of Haley’s longtime allies from her days in the South Carolina state House and governor’s mansion, many of whom remain deeply loyal to her, weren’t surprised by her combative approach to Trump.

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“This isn’t some ham-handed attempt at winning over the never-Trump crowd. She knows how to pick her foils,” one South Carolina Republican operative said. “Nikki has never been afraid to speak out against the powers that be.”

Haley has a history of taking on members of her own party. After she was elected to the South Carolina state House in 2004, she found herself at odds with Republican Bobby Harrell, the powerful former state House Speaker, over her efforts to force the chamber to take on-the-record votes. She was successful in that push, even as Harrell retaliated by removing her from a key committee.

Haley has also beaten long odds before. When she first ran for South Carolina governor in 2010, she faced a crowded primary field and lacked the support of the state’s major powerbrokers. She eventually vanquished former Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) in a primary runoff by more than 30 points.

“She knows how to run as an outsider, and knows how to win,” the South Carolina GOP operative said.

Still, there’s little doubt that Trump retains an iron grip on the Republican voter base. A Morning Consult-Politico tracking poll released last week after Politico published Haley’s remarks found that a majority of GOP and Republican-leaning voters — 57 percent — believe the former president should continue to play a “major role” in the party.

That same poll showed Trump as the leading contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination by a wide margin; 53 percent said he is their top choice for the GOP’s 2024 nod, while former Vice President Pence placed second, with 12 percent.

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Even Trump’s critics acknowledge the former president’s outsize support and influence among Republican voters.

Romney, one of Trump’s most prominent critics within the GOP, said that Trump still has “by far the largest voice” in the Republican Party.

“I look at the polls and the polls show that, among the names being floated as potential contenders in 2024, if you put President Trump in there among Republicans he wins in a landslide,” Romney said at The New York Times’s DealBook DC Policy Project on Tuesday.

Strategists note that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict where the GOP and its voters will be in three years when the 2024 primaries begin. Conant, the former Rubio adviser, said that potential candidates should be figuring out what their “own strengths are, focusing on building on those strengths and hoping that that’s what primary voters want in four years.”

But with Trump poised to return to the political stage forging a path forward without him will likely prove difficult for any prospective GOP candidate.

“There’s nothing about running for president that’s easy,” Conant said. “Trump makes it even harder.”

Brett Samuels contributed.