Don’t count Nikki Haley out. She could be the GOP nominee for president.

As she likes to say, she’s never lost an election. But win or lose, Nikki Haley could just be the face of Republicans’ future.

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Nikki Haley Visits “Hannity”

Nikki Haley at Fox News Channel Studios on Jan. 20 in New York City.

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Nearly three months after former President Donald Trump announced he was running again for president, he has his first major competitor in former South Carolina Gov. and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

In her video announcement, Haley boasted of the need for “generational change,” an obvious knock on both Trump and President Joe Biden’s ages — Haley is 51, indeed a generation behind both.

That distinction will likely serve her well in creating contrast with her former boss, now a septuagenarian Florida retiree, who has often sounded very much like a sitcom character out of the 1950s, bemoaning today’s women for straying from the Donna Reed archetype. His obsession with a woman’s place — in the kitchen, doing the dishes and cooking dinner — is well-documented.

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Haley’s broken all of the regressive stereotypes Trump routinely leans on to stoke the grievances of his right-wing base. At 38 she wasn’t in the kitchen, but busy becoming the youngest governor in the country, and South Carolina’s first female and minority governor. Her family hails from a country Trump has called “filthy,” and he’s repeatedly used a fake Indian accent to imitate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and an imaginary Indian call center representative.

Her impressive and inspiring immigrant story flies in the face of Trump’s penchant for casting immigrants as “criminals” and “animals” from “sh*thole countries,” undeserving of basic human dignity.

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And Haley was raised in the Sikh faith before converting to Christianity as an adult — Trump has repeatedly insulted the Sikh community, mistaking Sikhs for Muslims, throwing Sikhs out of his rallies, retweeting racist and bigoted memes, and conflating Sikhs with Islamic terrorism.

All of this is sure to come up as Trump takes her on as a competitor. If his past performances with women and minorities is prologue, he’ll likely zero in on her looks as he did with Carly Fiorina and her un-American-ness as he did with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in 2016. He even went after Ben Carson’s Seventh Day Adventist faith.

But her poise and measured speaking style are also a contrast to Trump and his preferred approach of ranting and raving, uncontrollable blurting and late-night Twitter tirades. In her Tuesday announcement, she seemed to send him a preemptive warning, saying, “I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

All of her background and bio aside, she’s a formidable candidate — a smart and skilled retail politician who’s very popular in her home state of South Carolina. If she can do well there in the Republican primary, she’ll be off to a promising start.

That is, if she can survive her first serious hurdle: Tim Scott. The Republican senator from South Carolina is also very well-liked there, and rumored to be mulling a presidential run himself. Then, there’s Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: Polling shows in a hypothetical matchup, Haley would sink DeSantis and essentially hand Trump the nomination — a potential turnoff for Republican voters not eager for a Trump second term.

Finally, there’s her messaging — it’s been mixed and contradictory. She’s been both critical of Trump and deferential to him. During the 2016 GOP primary she called him “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president” — and later endorsed him in the general election.

After the Jan. 6 insurrection, she argued that Trump’s “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history,” but she opposed his impeachment.

She baselessly asserted “there was fraud in the [2020] election,” but also said, “I don’t think that the numbers were so big that it swayed the vote in the wrong direction.”

She first said she wouldn’t run if Trump ran, and has obviously changed her mind.

Her contradictions don’t just concern Trump. In 2015, after a horrific race-based mass shooting at a church in South Carolina, she commendably fought for legislation to remove Confederate flags at the statehouse. But in her announcement for president this week she excoriated “the socialist left” for wanting to “rewrite history.”

She’ll have time and plenty of opportunities, I’m sure, to explain her positions and defend her record. And speaking of time, it’s not a question of if but when Trump takes his first swipe at her, and we get to see how Haley plans to deal with him.

She’ll have an uphill battle vying for Trump’s voters — they’re deeply suspicious of Haley and what they perceive as her “establishment” roots. But for folks who are ready to dismiss her candidacy, the joke may be on them. She’s far more skilled and likable than some other hopefuls (ahem, Ted Cruz), and she’s in a much better position to run than someone like former Vice President Mike Pence — reviled by Trump loyalists and Never-Trumpers alike.

As she likes to say, she’s never lost an election. But win or lose, Nikki Haley could just be the face of Republicans’ future.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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