Nikki Haley is now the last candidate standing between Donald Trump and his third-straight Republican nomination and total dominance of the GOP.
Unless the former South Carolina governor can pull off a shock win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the Republican Party’s nominating race could effectively be over before it really began.
Their clash in the Granite State became even more critical when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pulled out of the race on Sunday afternoon and endorsed Trump, after failing to beat him in the Iowa caucuses and as it became clear he had no path forward.
His withdrawal came as Trump is turning his full attention to Haley and calling on Republican voters to deliver him a New Hampshire primary win that is so comprehensive that it all but ends the nationwide nominating contest.
If Haley does not beat Trump, or at least come close, she may struggle to outline a rationale to continue against the ex-president and to convince donors she remains a good financial investment.
Haley told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday afternoon that she is now where she always wanted to be, in a straight fight against Trump.
“There’s two people in this race. That’s what we wanted all along. We are going to keep on going.”
Trump is already using his relentless political machine to try to crush Haley’s White House dreams in South Carolina, the next big primary state, where she served as governor and hopes to transform the race.
The former president, who is leading Haley in New Hampshire by 11 points in a new CNN poll published Sunday, is on a roll following his romp in the Iowa caucuses last week.
At a rocking rally in Manchester on Saturday night, Trump blasted the former South Carolina governor’s appeal to critical undeclared voters who are allowed to vote in the GOP primary in New Hampshire. He said it’s proof she’s an outlier in a party dominated by his “Make America Great Again” populism. “They want to turn liberal voters into Republicans for about two minutes while they vote and then go back to being liberal voters in the Democrat vote. It’s a terrible thing,” Trump said.
In an unusual move in a state that can be prickly about its first-in-the-nation status, Trump looked past Tuesday to the critical South Carolina primary next month, seeking to show that Haley’s chances of a genuine tilt at the nomination are futile. He turned frigid New Hampshire into an outpost of the balmy Southern state – where Haley won two terms as governor but that is now a MAGA bastion – calling GOP leaders, including the current governor and lieutenant governor, onstage to endorse him and to slam her as a Democrat in disguise.
“Those great philosophers, the Spice Girls, tell us what you want, what you really, really want. That’s what we are here to tell you what we in South Carolina want,” 76-year-old Gov. Henry McMaster said in his thick Southern drawl, quoting the 1990s British girl band to an incongruous backdrop of baying Trump supporters. “What we really, really want – there he is … right there,” McMaster said, pointing to a beaming Trump. South Carolina Rep. Russell Fry, from Myrtle Beach, claimed Haley was soft on China, immigration, crime and was a tool of corporate donors and “flip-flops on every position.” He added: “Mr. President, I think the choice is pretty clear with this crowd. They want Donald Trump back in the White House.”
Saturday night’s coordinated message from South Carolinians to New Hampshire voters came a day after Trump inflicted an earlier blow to Haley’s morale, rolling out the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who dropped his own presidential bid in November. “I’m not asking a question who … is a good person or a better person,” Scott told CNN’s Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I think President Donald Trump is a strong president, will be a strong president again.”
As if anyone had missed the point on Saturday night, Trump had mused: “We have almost everybody supporting us there, which is quite an attribute when you have somebody running who was the governor.” The ex-president added: “To the people of New Hampshire, all you need to know about Nikki Haley is that every globalist, liberal Biden supporter and ‘Never Trumper’ is on her side. Virtually every single leader … in her home state of South Carolina is on our side.” In recent days, Trump has also stepped up racially suggestive attacks on Haley on social media, using the birth name given to her by Indian immigrant parents to suggest that her South Asian heritage raises questions about her eligibility to be president despite her being a natural-born citizen.
Trump’s strategy was a sign of confidence in his standing in New Hampshire as he tries to show he is the inevitable nominee. It was also a clear attempt at intimidating Haley into folding her campaign if she loses Tuesday, before the race even gets to South Carolina. A home-state drubbing could weaken Haley’s political brand if she is looking ahead to a possible 2028 presidential campaign. But her chief surrogate in New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, insisted that she only needs a strong performance on Tuesday to credibly move forward. “I’ve always said you wanted a one-on-one race going into Super Tuesday. I think Super Tuesday is probably where you actually have to start winning states,” Sununu told NBC News, referring to a clutch of big state primaries in March.
But it’s hard to see how Haley could have a credible route to the nomination and continued fundraising if she loses New Hampshire, the state that appears most favorable to her, and then struggles in her home state.
Haley needs to make a statement in New Hampshire
Trump’s South Carolina showboating Saturday was another demonstration of his highly organized political operation, which was also on show in Iowa and is far more effective than in his chaotic 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
Haley had been riding a turn of momentum late last year, provoking expectations that she could be gathering the anti-Trump forces in the GOP around her in a way that the former president’s critics have always said could make him vulnerable in a GOP primary. But a third place in Iowa cooled some of Haley’s buzz after a largely impressive campaign, while several controversies, including her failure to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War, have raised questions about her staying power under pressure and the viability of the balance she’s trying to strike between appealing to moderates in New Hampshire and the more conservative grassroots GOP voters elsewhere.
In the CNN poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, Trump has expanded his lead with 50% support among likely GOP voters while Haley stands at 39%. DeSantis stood at 6%. Tuesday’s race will be watched for how that small sector of the electorate could impact the race between Haley and Trump.
Yet New Hampshire is also notorious for shock results and subverting conventional wisdom. From a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton reviving his fortunes as the “comeback kid” with a second place in 1992, to Sen. John McCain’s win over George W. Bush in 2000, and Hillary Clinton’s poll-defying surge to beat Iowa caucus-winner Barack Obama in 2008. Even if the last two candidacies foundered in South Carolina, as Haley might, they at least changed the complexion of the race as she is seeking to do.
Her fortunes Tuesday night will likely depend on how many moderate voters show up. In the CNN poll, Haley had 58% support among those registered as undeclared – as independents are called in New Hampshire – and who plan to vote. She has 71% from those who consider themselves ideologically moderate. She’s also ahead of Trump among college-educated voters. Her problem, however, is that such constituencies make up a minority of primary voters in New Hampshire.
After months trying to thread the needle on how hard to attack Trump over his 91 criminal charges and assault on democracy in 2021 – an aberrant record she euphemistically describes as chaos that “follows him around” – the former South Carolina governor stepped up her rhetoric in recent days. She says that Trump’s increasing attacks on her are a sign he’s worried. She’s coupling him with President Joe Biden, who is facing concerns about his age, by saying America can’t afford a choice between two 80-year-olds as president. (Biden is 81 and Trump is 77.) Haley, a traditional Republican foreign policy hawk, is also criticizing Trump for cozying up to dictators such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and China’s communist hierarchy.
On Saturday, Haley opened a new assault, questioning Trump’s mental fitness after he appeared to confuse her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when talking about the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by a mob of the ex-president’s supporters. “They’re saying he got confused,” Haley told voters in Keene, New Hampshire. “The concern I have is – I’m not saying anything derogatory, but when you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do it.”
Haley has a string of events across New Hampshire on Sunday as she seeks to drive the turnout that could make her competitive with Trump, including one with tough talking Judith Sheindlin, known for her long-running reality show “Judge Judy.”
Trump re-creates the searing rhetoric of his first inaugural
Exactly seven years after his searing “American carnage” inauguration address and exactly one year from January 20, 2025 – when he hopes to be sworn in for another term – Trump used his Saturday night rally to paint a picture of a nation in crisis, beset by open borders, crime and quagmires overseas. He multiplied fears about the potential character of a second term by mirroring his appeals court arguments that presidents deserve total immunity from prosecution. He inaccurately claimed supporters jailed for smashing their way into the Capitol on January 6 were “hostages.” And he praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has cracked down on press and academic freedoms, remarking, “It’s nice to have a strong man running your country.”
Supporters at the event, many of whom lined up for hours in snow and chilly winds, filled most of the lower bowl in a hockey arena in downtown Manchester. On the vintage score board at center ice, slots normally used to record goals carried the numbers 45 and 47 – referring to Trump as the 45th president and the potential 47th.
The evening began in a riotous party atmosphere, with fans singing along to “YMCA” by the Village People and the crowd roaring as Trump played stand-up comedian. But it took a dark, dystopian turn at the end as Trump cranked up the demagoguery and spoke over foreboding music. Trump supporter Edward Young – a Manchester native who had traveled from Brick, New Jersey, for his 68th Trump rally in stars-and-stripes shoes bearing the name “Trump” – said: “I believe this country is in danger of dying, of ceasing to exist,” in explaining his support for the ex-president.
Calling elections on the basis of crowd sizes is a fool’s game. But Trump’s event reflected the devotion of his supporters nationwide. In the CNN poll, some 46% of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire said they would be enthusiastic if Trump won the nomination, and just 25% said the same of Haley. The former South Carolina governor suffered a similar enthusiasm gap in Iowa, and after Sunday, she has only a day to turn it around in New Hampshire.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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