NASHUA, N.H. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) has garnered much attention among conservatives this year thanks to her frequent appearances on Fox News, her role as host for the Fourth of July celebration with President Trump at Mount Rushmore and her speech at the Republican National Convention. Her political visit to this first-in-the-nation primary state on Thursday revealed both promise and problems.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would be attracted to her. She consistently touts conservative values of faith, family and hard work. Her 2020 State of the State address noted her four goals as governor: “keeping taxes low, limiting government regulation, fighting government intrusion and keeping government open and honest.” In the present moment, she has refused to institute a lockdown at any time during the pandemic, despite recent rises in covid-19 cases and negative national media attention. She says “freedom works, lockdowns don’t,” an attitude that endears her to movement conservatives everywhere. The fact she fights back against the mainstream media’s pressure only makes them like her more.

Noem’s interest in national politics is clear despite attempts to tamp down the speculation. She has been busy attracting staff from D.C. for important positions. She recently tweeted out a short viral video of her hunting pheasants after saying “this is how we do social distancing in South Dakota.” Her official Twitter account includes thoughts on conservative touchstones such as Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court (she’s for it) and Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of the New York Post’s recent articles on Hunter Biden (she’s against it). She has also weighed in on the riots and violence in many major U.S. cities, saying “the rule of law is under attack in America,” yet another tune that’s music to conservative ears.

Her visit to New Hampshire went largely according to plan. She had some open events that generated favorable attention from local news outlets. She was also the guest speaker at a fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican Party, an event that sold out in anticipation of hearing from a person who one attendee told me “will be the next vice president in 2024.” People in the room later told me that Noem’s talk was the sort of personal introduction one would expect of a first-time visitor, focusing on her life story as someone who had to drop out of college to help save her family’s farm after her father died suddenly in her early 20s. By all accounts, she was well received, exactly what one would expect from someone with such an appealing story and conservative bona fides.

But what happened around that event exposed some potentially serious cracks in Noem’s political armor. The event had been billed as open to media, so I signed up with the state party and was put on the press list. Party officials were happy to see me when I arrived, and I picked up my badge with “media” emblazoned under my name. Everything was going well until I mentioned my primary interest was in writing about Noem. I was then pulled aside and told the event was closed to reporters and that I had to leave. The man who delivered that final message was as revealing as it was unexpected: former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

It was implicitly clear that the suave Svengali was the man behind the throne. His new book, co-written with Trump campaign veteran David Bossie, was being distributed to party contributors at the event, not something an event organizer would normally do for someone who wasn’t on the program. Lewandowski apparently controlled access to Noem and was willing to grant me only a five-minute impromptu meeting instead of watching her work the crowd and hear her pitch. That’s odd considering how anodyne her remarks reportedly were. It’s telling when a political strategist doesn’t trust his ward to pull off an easy performance when the spotlight is on.

Shrouding Noem from unscripted encounters, even with conservative-leaning journalists, has been par for her course thus far. She has rarely appeared on national media outside of Fox News, and her staff has been politely rejecting my requests for an interview since July. She has given interviews to reliably conservative personalities such as Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, but she’s being shielded from anything that might be remotely critical. That’s a clear sign that gatekeepers such as Lewandowski don’t think she’s ready for prime time.

Every Broadway show holds smaller performances to work out the flat notes and missteps before the big premiere. There’s still time for Noem and her team to prepare for the time when a party hungry for a strong, conservative woman turns its eyes to the uniquely American Great Plains. But as Shakespeare says in the play “Julius Caesar,” “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” If that tide swells soon, Noem just might not be ready for the fortune that could await.

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