In May 2016, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina walked down the aisle of the statehouse, beaming and shaking hands, after signing legislation that would largely outlaw abortion in the state after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Still, she wanted to be sure social conservatives knew where she stood. So her office arranged a second, entirely ceremonial signing a few weeks later at Hidden Treasure Christian School, an evangelical academy for children with disabilities in the heart of South Carolina’s conservative Upstate region.
Standing alongside the staunchly anti-abortion lawmakers who sponsored the bill, and flanked by dozens of children, Ms. Haley made clear that her support for their cause was not just political, but also personal.
“I am not pro-life because the Republican Party tells me to be,” she said, promoting her support for the ban, which prohibited abortion even in cases of rape or incest. “I’m pro-life because all of us have had experiences of what it means to have one of these special little ones in our life, to lose one, to know what it takes and how hard it is to get one.”
Seven years later, Ms. Haley’s abortion politics have not changed much. The same cannot be said for the country.
At campaign events, in speeches before anti-abortion groups and from the primary debate stage, Ms. Haley has cast herself as an empathetic seeker of compassionate “consensus” on one of the nation’s most divisive social issues.
“We need to stop demonizing this issue,” she said at the first Republican debate in Milwaukee last month. “It’s personal for every woman and man. Now, it’s been put in the hands of the people. That’s great.”
The Supreme Court’s overturning of federal abortion rights transformed an issue long considered settled by broad swaths of the American public into a political hammer for Democrats. The rapid shift has forced Ms. Haley and other Republicans to thread the needle between what she calls her “unapologetically pro-life” record and the broad majorities of American voters who support some form of abortion rights.
Some Republicans see Ms. Haley as pioneering a path forward on what’s become a damaging issue for their party since the 2022 decision. They believe her message could be acceptable to their party’s conservative, anti-abortion base without alienating moderate Republicans and swing voters. For Ms. Haley, the approach is part of a larger strategy to position herself as a more electable alternative to Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
Tudor Dixon, the Republican candidate for governor in Michigan last year, warned that Republicans would lose the messaging fight over abortion again in 2024 unless they adopted a stance similar to Ms. Haley’s that is more focused on compassion and finding common ground. Ms. Dixon lost her own race after facing a barrage of Democratic attacks over her opposition to abortion, including in cases of rape or incest.
“Democrats are trying to make anybody who is pro-life the enemy of women,” Ms. Dixon said in an interview. “It felt so good to see a strong, caring woman come at this message from a personal and loving perspective.”
In a closed-door meeting this week that was first reported by NBC News, Senate Republicans discussed new polling indicating that voters now saw the term “pro-life” as synonymous with being against abortion with no exceptions, according to a person who attended.
The polling, conducted by a super PAC tied to Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, also found that female politicians such as Ms. Haley were better received as messengers for the Republican position on the issue. The group urged Republican senators to do a better job of explaining more nuanced and broadly popular positions, including supporting exceptions to restrictions for rape, incest and the health of the mother.
Mr. Trump, the front-runner in the 2024 G.O.P. primary race, has also urged Republicans to embrace less stringent restrictions, while resisting pressure from anti-abortion activists to embrace a 15-week federal ban. Such a ban is widely unpopular: Polling conducted last month by The New York Times/Siena College found that 64 percent of independent voters and 57 percent of female voters oppose it.
While she offers little in the way of policy specifics, Ms. Haley flatly dismisses the push for a 15-week federal ban as unrealistic, given that Republicans fall short of the margin needed to pass such a proposal through the Senate. Instead, Ms. Haley stakes out broad areas of what she sees as national agreement, including a ban on “late term” abortions, encouraging adoption, providing contraception and not criminalizing women who have the procedure.
Those efforts by Ms. Haley and others to soften their approach face opposition from more strident anti-abortion activists, who view the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe as a starting point on the issue, not the end of it.
“We need a national defender of life who will boldly articulate their pro-life position,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a prominent anti-abortion political group. “The pro-life movement must have a nominee who will boldly advocate for consensus in Congress, and as president will work to gather the votes necessary in Congress. Dismissing this task as unrealistic is not acceptable.”
Supporters and campaign strategists say Ms. Haley’s approach reflects her personal experiences. In college, she watched a friend worry that her rape would result in an unwanted pregnancy. She later struggled with infertility, and underwent fertility treatments to have her two children. Her husband, Michael Haley, was adopted as a young child, an experience that made him, she said, “reason No. 1” for her opposition to abortion.
“I don’t know if any of the others on that debate stage or Trump can do what she has done, and go out there and talk about this in this way where it’s understanding and compassionate and empathic and it’s coming from a position of real knowledge,” said Jennifer Nassour, the former head of the Massachusetts Republican Party, who is backing Ms. Haley. “She’s the only leader who can take such a divisive issue and bring everyone together on it.”
Ms. Haley’s record tells a slightly more complicated story. During her time in South Carolina, Ms. Haley pushed her conservative state to restrict and limit abortion access.
As a state legislator, she backed bills mandating ultrasound tests and a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion could be performed. In 2005, she voted for a bill granting constitutional rights of due process and equal protection to a zygote, the fertilized egg cell that forms after conception. And, four years later, she co-sponsored legislation mandating that a “right to life” begins at the point when a sperm cell fertilizes an egg, several weeks before a pregnancy can generally be detected.
Such bills have been used by opponents of abortion to try to grant constitutional rights to embryos and fetuses. Those fetal personhood laws, as they are broadly known, could provide a legal framework not just for banning abortion but for limiting access to in vitro fertilization and contraception.
“My record on abortion is long and clear,” Ms. Haley said in an April speech to the Susan B. Anthony anti-abortion group. “I voted for every pro-life bill that came before me.”
After she became governor in 2011, Ms. Haley backed legislation granting a fetus that survives a failed abortion — a rare occurrence — the same medical treatment rights as a person. She signed a law prohibiting private insurance companies from covering an abortion procedure without the purchase of a separate policy rider. And she signed the 20-week ban in 2016.
In 2016, Wendy Nanny, the sponsor of the 20-week ban in the state legislature, saw the legislation as a step toward the ultimate goal of ending abortion rights in America. Ms. Haley, she said, backed that effort.
“She was always supportive of anything we tried to do that was pro-life,” Ms. Nanny said. “I never had any kind of pushback from her office.”
That anti-abortion record could be hard for Ms. Haley — and other Republicans who supported similar legislation across the country for years — to outrun in a general election. In the decade before Roe was overturned, Republican legislators enacted roughly 600 laws restricting abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research group that supports abortion rights. Voters view those records differently in the post-Roe world, in which abortion is now all but banned in 18 states, including South Carolina.
Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster, doubted whether Ms. Haley could square her “respectful and middle-ground, compromise approach” with a decade-long record of “actually not doing that when in office.” Republicans, she said, have far to go before voters will give them the benefit of the doubt on the issue.
“Those candidates trying to walk back their previous positions on abortion look incredibly political and non-trustworthy,” Ms. Murphy said. “Their credibility is so low on this issue that voters just fundamentally believe Republicans want to ban abortion.”
But for now, as she tries to win a Republican primary, Ms. Haley’s message is finding an audience among voters seeking an alternative to Mr. Trump. As she waited for Ms. Haley to speak in Manchester, N.H., on Wednesday, Betty Gay, a Republican former state representative, praised her approach.
“I think abortion is a horrible form of birth control, but there are some circumstances that require it,” said Ms. Gay, who was still undecided about the primary but does not plan on backing Mr. Trump. “I don’t want either of the extremes.”