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Nikki Haley has spent months zeroing in on Vice President Kamala Harris, telling GOP primary voters that the real danger of electing an aging President Joe Biden is the prospect of Harris as president. 

“We can’t afford a President Kamala Harris. I will say that over and over again,” Haley said Friday afternoon during an Iowa forum hosted by Tucker Carlson — mentioning Harris before even addressing Biden. 

Haley’s attacks on Harris have become a ubiquitous part of her campaign appearances. The former South Carolina governor has made Harris a key political enemy —  above Biden, and certainly above her contenders in the GOP primary field led by former President Donald Trump, whom she rarely criticizes. 

“Anyone is better than President Kamala Harris. Anyone,” Haley said during an appearance on Fox News earlier this month. When asked if she meant to say President Biden, Haley responded: “Well, I think it’s President Harris.”

Haley isn’t the only presidential candidate who launched attacks on Harris, the first woman and first Black and Asian-American person to be vice president. But she’s the most consistent, delivering a message that Biden could leave the country in the hands of Harris, who is seen as more progressive and has low favorability ratings, particularly among White and older voters. 

The attacks also play to voter biases against women candidates, who remain susceptible to gender stereotypes that deem them as less qualified for leadership roles.

At the same time, Haley’s strategy to primarily attack Harris could undermine her own presidential prospects: Conservative commentators have said the attacks show Haley is simply “auditioning” for the role of vice president, dismissing her presidential campaign, which is still polling in the single digits in a GOP primary field in which she is the only woman.

“Part of the strategy is to replace Joe Biden — an old, White man — with Kamala Harris, a multiracial woman, and thereby better tap into the hostile sexism and racial resentment that we know fueled Donald Trump’s success in 2020,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics. She added that in a crowded field, Haley’s team may have conceived this strategy to help boost her campaign.

“Tapping into those sentiments has been strategically helpful for conservatives,” Dittmar said. “I think she is still running to win. I don’t think this campaign was to be vice president.”  

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, is one of a handful of high-profile women to have sought the Republican presidential nomination and the first Asian-American woman to ever do so. Republican primary voters are more likely to view women and candidates of color as more liberal, regardless of their policy stances. Experts say that means candidates like Haley often have to work harder to prove their conservative credentials.

Nina Smith, a Democratic political operative who has worked for the campaigns of Pete Buttigieg, Stacey Abrams and Deb Haaland, said Haley is tapping the same gender and race stereotypes she is susceptible to in an attempt to “stir up” animosity toward Harris. 

“Instead of focusing on the president who has the job that you’re applying for, you’re focusing on who you think is the more vulnerable of the two. She could be taking on the person who is leading in the polls in the primary she’s trying to win,” Smith said. 

“There’s an inherent bias when it comes to women in leadership. They have to work to be both likable and effective, and that’s not a burden that a lot of men face. To some degree, Nikki Haley understands that, but is using it against another woman.”  

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks on stage at Bowie State University.
Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks at Bowie State University in February 2023 in Bowie, Maryland.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

In the Biden administration, Harris was tapped to address the root causes of migration that were leading to the crisis at the U.S. southern border. She quickly became a target of Republicans, including Haley, who blamed her for the record number of undocumented immigrants entering the country. 

During a June event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, focused on national security, Haley  repeated her attack line that “a vote for Joe Biden is a vote for President Kamala Harris.” She then said that Harris “can’t be at the tip of the spear when it comes to dealing with our national security policy,” adding: “She will not be able to handle it.”

In a May rally in Greer, South Carolina, Haley derided the vice president for not spending as much time as she did at the U.S. southern border during a recent campaign trip. “I didn’t pull a Kamala, and go there and come back,” said Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In a Fox News op-ed that same month, Haley tied her call for competency tests for older politicians — one she made at the launch of her campaign — to a potential Harris presidency, accusing her of diplomatic “failures.” 

“This uncertainty about Biden’s mental competence means Americans must consider the actual competency of the vice president,” Haley wrote, referring to concerns over Biden’s age. 

Harris’ office has touted some signs of progress on her diplomatic efforts. Separately, the administration announced a drop in undocumented migrants earlier this month. 

Biden, 80, is the oldest person ever elected president. He was 77 when elected to his first term, and would be 82 when sworn in for a second term.

Harris herself has not engaged with Haley’s attacks.  

Asked in a press briefing about Haley’s attacks on Biden and Harris, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed concerns about Biden’s ability to perform the duties of his job.

“If you look at his track record, if you look at what he’s been able to do, he has been able to push forward … historic pieces of legislation. He has gotten more done than any other president,” she said, pointing to job creation and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.