Nikki Haley's approach to abortion is rooted in her earliest days in South Carolina politics

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FILE - Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition's fall banquet, Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. Haley is gaining attention in the GOP race with her calls for consensus around abortion, an unusual tone in a campaign where Republican White House hopefuls often prefer to highlight their eagerness to fight President Joe Biden and other Democrats. (AP Photo/Bryon Houlgrave, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. – As a state representative running a longshot campaign for South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley would often explain her opposition to abortion with a story about her family.

“I’m strongly pro-life, very pro-life, and not because my party tells me to be, but my husband was adopted, and so every day I know the blessings of having him there,” she said in 2010.

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She won that race and was reelected as governor before serving as former President Donald Trump's United Nations ambassador. She's now competing against Trump as the only woman seeking the Republican presidential nomination. And in a primary race animated by questions over the future of abortion access in the U.S., Haley is reviving the personal anecdote she would give in South Carolina — almost verbatim.

“I am unapologetically pro-life, not because the Republican Party tells me, but because my husband was adopted, and I live with that blessing every day," she told a New Hampshire audience in May.

Haley is gaining attention in the GOP race with her calls for “consensus” around abortion, an unusual tone in a campaign where Republican White House hopefuls often prefer to highlight their eagerness to fight President Joe Biden and other Democrats. Her supporters say she has staked out a consistent approach from her earliest days in politics, challenging fellow Republicans to be pragmatic in their pursuit of a deeply conservative agenda.

As a lawmaker and then governor, Haley supported some of the most restrictive abortion measures that the South Carolina Legislature could pass.

“Nikki’s doing what she’s always done,” said Nathan Ballentine, a South Carolina lawmaker who served with Haley in the Legislature and has endorsed her presidential bid. “She’s being honest with the people and will just let it go from there.”

Haley has urged Republicans to not push for a national abortion ban with next to no chance of passing Congress, a view she articulated to millions of viewers during the first presidential debate last month and is likely to reinforce when Republican candidates other than Trump gather for another debate on Wednesday.

“Leadership is about bringing out the best in people — that’s what Nikki’s always done,” Haley campaign spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said. “Her approach will save more babies and support more moms than demonizing the issue.”

Some of her competitors — including Sen. Tim Scott, her fellow South Carolinian and erstwhile ally — have criticized her for not standing more firmly for what they say are conservative principles.

“What she ultimately might want, versus what she knows she can get done as an effective leader, are two different things,” said Ballentine, who co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation with Haley when she served in the state legislature. “And she’s not going to mislead the public and make them think that they’re going to get something ... when she knows the reality is, the votes aren’t there in the Senate, and that it’s a process you have to work through.”

While Trump remains dominant in the primary, many Republican voters say they're open to a new nominee. Haley has tried to distinguish herself with her defense of a muscular U.S. foreign policy, citing her experience as U.N. ambassador, and by dismissing her competitors as men fighting with each other.

During one squabble in the first GOP debate, Haley cut in with a reference to a famous line from Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

In 2010, Haley identified with the then-nascent tea party, a state legislator who advocated for spending cuts. Running against three men, Haley attacked what she called the “good ol' boys” dominating the state's politics.

As a state legislator and governor, Haley supported several anti-abortion measures and often clashed with members of her party because she labeled them insufficiently conservative. She issued “report cards” to the Republican- and male-dominated legislature, grading them on how they voted on her priorities.

While serving in the state House, Haley co-sponsored legislation in 2009 mandating a 24-hour waiting period between a woman’s abortion consultation and the procedure itself. The bill, signed into law the following year, also required that women receive information about calculating a fetus’ gestational age and a list of free ultrasound providers.

The following year, she voted to end abortion coverage for victims of rape and incest in the state health plan for employees; the Senate defeated that proposal.

As governor, she signed the most conservative abortion bill South Carolina Republicans were able to pass through both chambers at the time. Supporters of the legislation, referred to colloquially as the “pain capable” bill, cited the disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. It allowed exceptions only if the mother’s life was in jeopardy or a doctor determined the fetus can’t survive outside the womb, but not for rape or incest.

Then, as she does now, Haley drew on her experience as a mother.

“I connected with my kids moving inside of me,” she said, recalling the 20-week point of her pregnancies. “And all that I felt in those five months was something that I think is very important that we think about.”

The Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade achieved a conservative goal of half a century, but also threw the politics of abortion into flux. Voters have supported abortion rights in several ballot measures in GOP-leaning states. Democrats in last year's midterms kept control of the Senate and did better than expected in the House, though Republicans won a narrow majority.

Evangelicals and other social conservatives, meanwhile, are split on a path forward and concerned about polling suggesting a majority of Americans support abortion access and oppose the most restrictive GOP-enacted bans.

Nationally, six in ten Republican men (61%) and women (63%) say that abortion should be illegal in a majority of instances, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in June.

Majorities of Republican men (57%) and women (54%) support their state allowing legal abortions up to 6 weeks into the pregnancy. Republican men are slightly more likely than GOP women to say abortion should be legalized at 15 weeks (34% vs. 21%).

Haley gave a closely watched speech in April at the headquarters of a leading anti-abortion group, arguing that an overall “consensus” was needed before seeking a federal-level ban.

She warned Republicans not to be caught in “a kind of gotcha bidding war” whose questions “miss the point if the goal is saving as many lives as possible.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of that group, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has long credited Haley for her messaging and said in an interview that Haley was “uniquely gifted at communicating from a pro-life woman’s perspective.”

Haley's home state, meanwhile, has gone further on abortion under her successor. Earlier this year, Gov. Henry McMaster signed into a law a bill banning most abortions at six weeks. The state Supreme Court upheld the law last month, although opponents have filed a new legal challenge seeking to expand the timeframe from six weeks to nine.

Asked about that law in last month's debate, Haley issued a call “to stop demonizing this issue,” reiterating her focus on consensus.

“I agree with her in some ways when it comes to being pragmatic — I just would draw the line in a different place,” state Rep. John McCravy, who sponsored South Carolina’s new law, said of Haley. McCravy has endorsed Tim Scott. “And I would say, you try and do the best you can first and then you give in. You have to have a vote to know how people are going to vote.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP