Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley downplays federal abortion ban

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Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who is vying for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has distanced herself from calls for a federal abortion ban, saying that to promise such a universal barrier to terminations would be to lie to the American people.

In an interview with CBS News’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Haley declined to follow some of her other potential Republican rivals for the presidency by backing a nationwide ban through congressional legislation. Instead, she said she supported the right of each state to set its own abortion limits.

Related: ‘We need to read the room’: GOP divided on abortion as Democrats unite for 2024

“There are some states that have been pro-life – I welcome that,” she said. “There are some states that have erred on the side of abortion – I wish that wasn’t the case. We need to make sure that people’s voices are heard.”

Haley, 51, is firmly in the anti-abortion wing of the Republican party and has the track record to prove it. As South Carolina governor, she signed into law a provision that bans abortions after 20 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest.

That law went into effect after the decision by the US supreme court last June to overturn the nationwide right to an abortion.

Despite her hardline position, the Republican presidential candidate is now attempting to soften that image by detaching herself from talk of a federal ban. The disappointing result of the party in last November’s midterm elections was widely attributed to Republican messaging on abortion, which stands starkly out of line with the broad pro-choice sentiments of American public opinion.

On Sunday, Haley, who was ambassador to the UN during Donald Trump’s presidency, pointed to the filibuster in the US Senate as the reason for her hesitation on a federal ban. Under its terms, such a prohibition could only be secured with 60 votes in favour.

Republicans are in the minority in the 100-member Senate by two seats.

“We have to tell the American people the truth,” she said. “In order to do a national standard, you’d have to have a majority of the House, 60 Senate votes and a president. We haven’t had 60 pro-life senators in 100 years.”

She added: “So the idea that a Republican president could ban all abortions is not being honest with the American people.”

Haley’s double-edged posture – anti-abortion at state level, ambivalent at national level – will partly define the terms of her engagement with Republican competitors. She is one of four Republican candidates who have formally declared their candidacies for the presidency, with several others waiting in the wings.

Haley launched her campaign in February, presenting herself as a president for a “new generation”. But she has so far struggled to find her footing, laboring from low public name recognition and only 4.2% in the Real Clear Politics rolling average of the polls.

Other Republican hopefuls are also wrestling with the abortion issue. In his fractious CNN town hall this week, Trump repeatedly declined to answer whether he would support a federal abortion ban, offering only such bland statements as: “President Trump is going to make a determination what he thinks is great for the country and what’s fair for the country.”

Haley continues to tread with extreme caution around Trump, who remains the clear Republican frontrunner. Asked by Face the Nation to comment on the fact that Trump was last week found liable for sexually abusing E Jean Carroll, she dissembled.

“There’s a verdict and I think there’s been an appeal, and I think the American people need to make their decision based on that,” she said.

Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina who is exploring the possibility of a presidential run, has backed a federal abortion ban at 20 weeks. Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida who spent the weekend in the critical early-voting state of Iowa in preparation for a potential presidential bid, has also aligned himself with anti-abortion hardliners.

In April he signed into Forida law an extreme abortion ban that comes into effect at six weeks – before many women even know they are pregnant.

Haley and DeSantis have been going at each other with increasing intensity in recent weeks, as both languish some distance behind Trump in the polls. Haley has trolled the Florida governor over his feud with Disney, calling him “thin-skinned” and inviting the entertainment giant to move Disney World to South Carolina.

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