Grace Beahm / Reuters

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in the spotlight after Charleston shooting

Church massacre has called the Republican governor to duty — and may be a trial run for presumed national ambitions

As South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley consoled devastated residents following this week’s fatal shooting at the Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, analysts questioned whether the Republican leader would temper her conservative stance on gun control amid presumptions that she is eyeing the national political stage.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Thursday, Haley delivered an emotional address at a press conference. “We all woke up today,” she began, pausing for a moment to hold back tears, “and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken. And so we have some grieving to do, and we’ve got some pain we have to go through.”

But during a Friday morning interview with The Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie, Haley was all business, declaring the shooting “an absolute hate crime” and pushing for a death penalty sentence for Dylann Roof, who has been charged with nine counts of murder.

When Guthrie asked whether the shooting gave Haley any cause to “rethink” her stance as a strong Second Amendment supporter, Haley didn’t miss a beat.

“There is one person to blame here,” Haley said, referring to Roof. “A person filled with hate, a person that does not define South Carolina, and we are going to focus on that one person.”

Support for gun ownership is strong in South Carolina, and Haley has leaned to the right on the issue — particularly because she was first elected during a groundswell of Tea Party support in 2010, according to Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

He said that as the nation is transfixed on the tragedy in Charleston — and as a result, on Haley — they’ll be watching to see how she responds.

“There’s a lot of speculation in our state about what are her political ambitions,” Gibbs told Al Jazeera. “It’s a dilemma for any Republican. You’ve got a base that you need to support. She needs to toe a more conservative line, but to become a more national candidate, you can’t go to far too the right.”

David Woodward, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said Haley did an exemplary job in “leading the public grief.” Woodward said this certainly wouldn’t hurt Haley’s standing in the national spotlight.

“She teared up and sort of epitomized the way everybody felt,” Woodward said. “I think she could do that the way some other people couldn’t. She put a face on the grieving that has helped.”

In terms of gun ownership, however, there has never been much doubt about Haley’s position. While she signed legislation this month imposing lifetime bans on gun ownership for repeat domestic violence offenders, she has repeatedly reiterated her strong support for the Second Amendment.

"We want to make sure that we put [guns] in the hands of responsible people, which is why we passed legislation that said anyone that had been ordered by the courts to be declared with a mentally ill disease, that they do not carry," she said during an October 2014 debate with her fellow gubernatorial candidates. "But for everybody else, we want them to have the ability to protect their home, protect their children, protect their business."

Last year, gunmaker PTR Industries presented her with a commemorative rifle engraved with the state’s official tree, a palmetto, after she welcomed the company to move production to the South Carolina town of Aynor from Connecticut, where a new gun law barred residents from owning its rifles.

"We are South Carolinians who love our guns, who love to hunt, who love to use it as a sport and we appreciate it, and any company that decides to manufacture here, we're going to welcome them," Haley said as she accepted the gift, according to ABC affiliate WPDE.com.

Woodward said that while the Republican Party in South Carolina has viewed Haley’s leadership with some skepticism, no other candidate has successfully challenged her, either.

But Woodward cautioned that it remains to be seen whether her relative success in the governor’s office will translate into a foothold in national politics. “It’s a much hotter spotlight on a national stage,” he said.

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