New Hampshire may be Nikki Haley’s last chance to keep presidential hopes alive

Nikki Haley
Republican presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event at Exeter High School in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary could be one of the last chances for a truly competitive race for the Republican nomination. Although it is only the second primary in a months-long nominating process, Nikki Haley is now the only major candidate left challenging former President Donald Trump.

“It’s now one fella and one lady left,” Haley said Sunday, telling her supporters Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had dropped out.

A couple of days earlier at Grill 603 in Milford, N.H., the former South Carolina governor delivered her now-familiar pitch that she is the most electable Republican in the race.

“If you look there was a poll that came out today: Trump is down by 7 points,” she said, pausing long enough for the crowd to begin to clap. But she had to clarify. “Well, this is against Joe Biden, by the way. Trump is down by 7 points. And I beat Biden.”

It’s not clear which poll she was referring to, though she was talking about a hypothetical general election result and not the primary. There aren’t any public polls showing her ahead of Trump in New Hampshire. At multiple daily events in the leadup to the primary, Haley has tried to connect one on one with potential supporters, including 10-year-old Hadley Craig.

Nikki Haley
Haley chats with 10-year-old Hadley Craig during a campaign stop on Jan. 19 in Milford, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

After some small talk about how fifth grade is going (good) and Craig’s favorite subject (P.E.), Haley turned serious.

“You know what, it’s all about being strong, all right?” Haley told Hadley. “And when you feel those scary feelings inside, just push through it.”

That message has a lot in common with how Haley is conducting her campaign.

“I have told you from the very beginning and been very consistent: I said I wanted to be strong in Iowa. I feel like we did that,” Haley snapped back at reporters when asked about her path to victory.

Rather than predicting victory in the Granite State, Haley is going with a less concrete metric of success.

“We want to be stronger in New Hampshire. We’re gonna do that,” she said. “We won’t know what stronger is until the numbers come in.”

“And then I want to be stronger than that in South Carolina.”

‘Somebody has to stop Trump’

Nikki Haley
Haley speaks to a voter at a diner in Milford, N.H., on Jan. 19. (Jeongyoon Han/NPR)

New Hampshire represents Haley’s best and possibly last chance for a truly strong performance against Trump. Independent voters in the state are allowed to vote in the GOP primary and the electorate is more moderate and less MAGA.

Case in point is Hadley’s dad, Tyler Craig, a software executive from Amherst, N.H.

“I one hundred percent think that she has a shot,” said Craig about Haley.

That is, he said, “If enough Republicans and independents get a sense of sanity back and are less interested in drama and just pettiness. We’re tired of pettiness. And that’s what Nikki Haley would take away from where we are today.”

Craig, a Republican, insists that he likes Haley as a candidate — and not just because he’s anti-Trump.

But Warren Witherell is one of plenty of people at Haley’s events who fall into the latter category.

“I really feel that somebody has to stop Trump and she’s a likely candidate,” said Witherell, a retired engineer from Keene.

Turn on a TV in New Hampshire, and you’ll see the state’s popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu, making that argument on repeat.

“And now we have a chance to reset the election for our entire country,” he says. “Nikki is the only one who can beat Donald Trump to move America forward.”

That is among the $31 million in ads Haley and her allied super PACs have run in New Hampshire — more than $5 million of it in the past week, according to an NPR analysis of data from the tracking firm Ad Impact. Trump and his allies have spent about half as much.

Even with New Hampshire, it’s a tough road

As she closes out her campaign in New Hampshire, Haley is imploring voters to give her a chance to prevent a Biden-Trump rematch few in America seem to really want.

“Do you want to be scared in November or not?” she asks in a call and response near the end of her stump speech. “Do you want your kids to be proud in November or not? Then let’s do it.”

Teacher Julie Lemieux is backing Haley in the primary but worries she doesn’t have much of a chance outside of moderate New Hampshire.

“Well, look at what happened in Iowa,” she said, of Haley’s third-place finish.

She doesn’t want to vote for Trump — she thinks he’s too far on the right — but Lemieux can’t see herself voting for Biden.

“It seems like it’s going down party lines if it’s gonna be Biden or Trump,” she said. “And I don’t think anyone feels that great about those choices. But this is what we got. But maybe not.”

Even if winning New Hampshire weren’t a reach, Ben Ginsberg, a retired Republican attorney who is a leading expert on the nominating process, says the deck is already stacked against her.

“This race is effectively over,” he explained of the delegate math. “I mean, even if Nikki Haley can win in New Hampshire, she’ll still have a real uphill slog. And she’ll have to win, absolutely have to win her home state of South Carolina at the end of February.”

And right now she’s trailing badly in polls of South Carolina voters.

Ginsberg says no Republican candidate has won the nomination without their home state. But Haley insists she knows how to win in South Carolina and will have plenty of time to build up momentum. Trump is angling to knock her out before she ever gets that chance. He’s already saying it’s time to unify the Republican Party: behind the front-runner, of course.

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