MANCHESTER, N.H. – Former President Donald Trump is looking for a Republican campaign knockout punch.

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley is trying to keep her 2024 campaign alive – something Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was unable to do during the New Hampshire campaign.

Given the stakes, the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday will be a big turning point in the Republican presidential race.

And perhaps end it altogether.

“We have to win by a lot,” Trump told backers Saturday in a chilly hockey arena in Manchester, later adding: “Now’s the time for the Republican Party to unify.”

The night before, in Concord, Trump said of the New Hampshire primary: “This could end it.”

DeSantis accommodated Trump early, announcing Sunday he was suspending his campaign and endorsing the former president.

This despite the fact that Trump faces up to four criminal trials in months ahead, that he is in the middle of a civil damages trial in which he is accused of sexual abuse, and that he’s made shaky statements on the stump, including mixing up Haley and former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Donald Trump in New Hampshire in November

Donald Trump in New Hampshire in November

Haley’s strategy: Win over independent voters

Haley, the former South Carolina governor, has surged in New Hampshire polls and put herself in position for a possible upset.

After finishing third in Iowa, is banking on a unique feature of the New Hampshire primary: Independents can vote in party primaries.

While Haley is pursuing these independent voters, Trump remains the favorite in New Hampshire. As of Sunday, the average of polls compiled by the Real Clear Politics website puts Trump at 50.3%, Haley at 35.3%, and DeSantis at 6.3%.

Haley and her supporters, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, said that even a strong second place will propel her into her home state primary in South Carolina on Feb. 24.

At the present time, Trump also enjoys a huge lead in South Carolina.

Haley hits at Trump’s ‘toxic’ baggage

Haley has said little about Trump’s legal troubles, preferring instead to emphasize his political baggage.

All the “drama” surrounding Trump would make him unelectable in a fall race against President Joe Biden, Haley has said. She holds Trump responsible for Republican election reversals in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

“The problem with Joe Biden and Donald Trump is we’ve seen they take all of politics personal,” Haley told Fox News. “That’s what’s gotten us into this situation with the country where we are, where it’s divided and it’s toxic.”

Former president derides Haley on many levels

Coming off a convincing win in the Iowa caucuses last week, Trump has repeatedly said he would pressure rivals to get out of the race if he takes a “big vote” in New Hampshire.

While Trump has spent most of the campaign going after DeSantis, he has recently intensified his attacks on Haley as she displaced the Florida governor as the biggest electoral threat to the former president.

The Trump attacks have been called racist, toxic and in some cases just plain strange.

During his rally in Concord, Trump confused Haley with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when discussing Trump supporters’ attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump has also made references to Haley’s Indian heritage. He has repeatedly mangled Haley’s given first name − Nimarata − as “Nimbra.” He has re-posted a “birther” hit piece questioning whether Haley is eligible for the presidency (she is, having been born in the United States).

Haley said Trump’s attacks show he is “scared” of her rise in the nomination race.

Amid the campaign, Trump’s trials play out

In addition to asking for votes, Trump is defending himself against many legal accusations by claiming that accusers are using the legal system to play politics.

Trump’s future trials include two cases in which he is accused of trying to steal the 2020 election, triggering the violence of Jan. 6, 2021.

The New Hampshire primary is taking place in the middle of a civil defamation trial in which Trump is accused of sexual assault.

Writer E. Jean Carroll testified that Trump lied about her and about he assaulted her in a department store in the 1990s.

On two days last week, Trump attended the Carroll trial in the morning and then flew to New Hampshire for campaign rallies in the evening.

The former president may testify in the Carroll trial as soon as Monday, the day before the New Hampshire primary.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has claimed that the indictments are politically motivated. Polls indicate that many Republicans agree with him, while moderates and independent voters are more concerned about Trump’s behavior.

DeSantis bows out

DeSantis, the governor of Florida, had insisted he was in the race to stay − right before announcing by video Sunday that he was withdrawing.

It wasn’t a total shock. Since finishing a distant second in Iowa, DeSantis has split his campaign time between New Hampshire and South Carolina, for some reason.

DeSantis was in single digits in New Hampshire polling and canceled a pair of national television interviews on Sunday, ratcheting up questions about his political future.

All this after saying he planned to live up to the New Hampshire state slogan.

“‘Live free or die’ is the motto I have led by in Florida, and it’s the mindset I’ll bring to the White House as president,” DeSantis said on the social media site X (formerly Twitter).

A history of New Hampshire surprises

As they head to the polls Tuesday, New Hampshire voters have been known to deliver surprises, a quality that Haley is counting on.

In the Democratic primary of 2008, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was coming off a big win in Iowa and was heavily favored to defeat New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton won.

In 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain defeated Republican frontrunner George W. Bush in New Hampshire, a surprise blowout fueled by the kinds of independent voters being wooed by Haley.

‘Low energy’ around the ‘whole’ NH campaign

Many New Hampshire Republicans forecast a Trump win after a relatively lifeless campaign conducted recently in cold January weather.

“There’s low energy around the whole race,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who is backing Haley.

One reason, he said, is the sense that New Hampshire and the rest of the country are headed “for something nobody wants: A rematch between Biden and Trump.”

Nationwide, many Republicans said Haley will need at least a very close loss in New Hampshire in order to be competitive down the line.

“If Trump beat her in New Hampshire by a very narrow margin − say 1 point − she might be able to make a last stand in South Carolina,’ said Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist who opposes Trump.

The problem, she said, is that “Trump is extremely popular in South Carolina, so she needs a lot of momentum going into the state. It’s hard to see how she gets that without a win” in New Hampshire.

Trump backers who saw him in Manchester expressed total confidence, though they said Haley and/or DeSantis will stay in the race for a while if anti-Trump activists keep giving them money.

Roger Sylvester, 71, a retired farmer from Clarksville, N.H., said that, one way or another, a big New Hampshire win would be eventually fatal to any stop-Trump effort.

“It’ll be the beginning of the death knell,” he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump hopes New Hampshire knocks out Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis

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