White House hopeful Nikki Haley rebuked over American Civil War comments

Republican presidential candidate didn't mention slavery when responding to a question about how the war started

Nikki Haley is trailing Donald Trump in the polls for the Republican nomination. AP
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US presidential hopeful Nikki Haley faced a firestorm of criticism on Thursday after failing to mention slavery as a cause of the American Civil War when asked what led to the conflict at a campaign event.

Less than three weeks before voting begins in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, it was the first major stumble for a candidate whose campaign has seen her propelled from an unlikely outsider to front-runner Donald Trump's biggest threat.

The former UN ambassador told a town hall crowd on Wednesday in Berlin, New Hampshire, that the cause of the bloody 1861-65 war was “basically how the government was going to run” and “freedoms and what people could and couldn't do”.

She added that “it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are”.

Apparently caught off guard, she turned the debate back at the questioner, who responded that he was not the one running for president, and that it was “astonishing” that slavery had not come up in her answer.

Scholars agree that slavery was the main driver of the Civil War and Ms Haley's obfuscation prompted swift rebuttals.

“It was about slavery,” President Joe Biden said, responding on social media to video footage of the town hall.

Ms Haley, 51, attempted to clear up her comments in a local radio interview on Thursday in New Hampshire, affirming that “of course the Civil War was about slavery, that's the easy part”.

She accused the town hall questioner – who refused to identify himself to reporters – of being a “Democratic plant” sent to damage her campaign and boost Mr Trump, who is considered a weaker prospect against Mr Biden in the general election.

Mr Trump commands a lead of more than 20 points in polling for New Hampshire's January 23 primary, but Ms Haley has been gaining ground – overtaking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the former president's biggest threat.

Ms Haley, who has a history of stirring controversy on America's Confederate past, raised eyebrows over her views on the Civil War during her successful run for South Carolina governor in 2010.

Characterising the conflict as a fight between “tradition” and “change”, she told a private meeting of Confederate heritage groups there were “passions on different sides”.

Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison said Ms Haley's latest remarks were “not stunning” to any black residents of South Carolina during her term in office.

Updated: December 28, 2023, 10:10 PM