Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Republican presidential hopeful, on Thursday walked back her stumbling answer about the cause of the Civil War, telling a New Hampshire interviewer, “Of course the Civil War was about slavery.”
Her retreat came about 12 hours after a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire, a state that is central to her presidential hopes, where she was asked what caused the Civil War. She stumbled through an answer about government overreach and “the freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do,” after jokingly telling the questioner he had posed a tough one. He then noted she never uttered the word “slavery.”
“What do you want me to say about slavery?” Ms. Haley replied. “Next question.”
Speaking on the radio show The Pulse of New Hampshire on Thursday morning, Ms. Haley, who famously removed the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia, said: “Yes I know it was about slavery. I am from the South.”
But she also insinuated that the question had come not from a Republican voter but from a political detractor, accusing President Biden and Democrats of “sending plants” to her town-hall events.
“Why are they hitting me? See this for what it is,” she said, adding, “They want to run against Trump.”
In recent polls, Ms. Haley has surged into second place in New Hampshire, edging closer to striking distance of former President Donald J. Trump. To win the Granite State contest on Jan. 23, the first primary election of 2024, she will most likely need independent voters — and possibly Democrats who registered as independents. That is how Senator John McCain of Arizona upset George W. Bush in the state’s 2000 primary.
But the Civil War gaffe may have put a crimp in that strategy.
“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run,” she said Wednesday night, “the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.”
The answer echoed a century’s argument from segregationists that the Civil War was fundamentally about states’ rights and economics, not about ending slavery.
Late Wednesday night, even Mr. Biden rebuked the answer: “It was about slavery,” he wrote on social media.
She tried to walk back her comments on Thursday, asking: “What’s the lesson in all this? That freedom matters. And individual rights and liberties matter for all people. That’s the blessing of America. That was a stain on America when we had slavery. But what we want is never relive it. Never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”
The episode also undermined her appeal to moderates and independents seeking to thwart Mr. Trump’s return to the White House by portraying Ms. Haley as an agent of compromise.
Her record as governor of South Carolina included blocking a bill to stop transgender youths from using bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity. Her push to lower the Confederate battle flag came after the mass shooting of Black worshipers at a Charleston church by a white supremacist. And she has recently called for a middle ground on abortion.
“Haley’s refusal to talk honestly about slavery or race in America is a sad betrayal of her own story,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California.