Anti-Trump Republicans say Nikki Haley is their 'only hope.' But is her surge coming too late?

Spirit Lake, IA - December 09: Former U.N. Ambassador and current Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley, speaks to a packed Okoboji Barn, in Spirit Lake, IA at stop two of three, during a day of campaigning in the state, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to voters in Spirit Lake, Iowa, in December. A strong showing in the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses could better position Haley to snatch her party's nomination from her onetime boss, Donald Trump.
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Retiree Reggie Alt handed a handwritten seven-page memo detailing her ideas for how to beat former President Trump to one of former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley's aides.

Then she grasped Haley's hands and offered the GOP presidential candidate some "Star Wars"-themed advice:

“Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi. You are our only hope,” the 68-year-old Algona resident told Haley.

Nikki Haley reaches out to shake hands with a woman
At a recent campaign event in Spirit Lake, Iowa, Nikki Haley supporter Reggie Alt, 68, right, told the candidate, "Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi. You are our only hope,"

Haley laughed and wrapped her arms around the former receptionist.

Haley needs the support of caucusgoers such as Alt, an independent voter who said she has supported presidential candidates of both parties over the last half a century, if she hopes to narrow former President Trump's massive lead in state and national polls ahead of this month's Iowa caucuses. A strong showing in the Jan. 15 contest could better position her to snatch her party's nomination from her onetime boss.

"Haley has a strong chance” if Trump’s campaign collapses, said Dianne Bystrom, director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “She’s a candidate who checks all the boxes — she’s a very good communicator, a very skilled debater, she has excellent television ads, and she comes across as strong and articulate.”

Nikki Haley campaigns in a converted barn
Nikki Haley speaks to a packed house at Okoboji Barn in Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Haley is enjoying a boomlet of sorts. Her poll numbers have risen in recent weeks, larger crowds are attending her events, she has won prominent donors and endorsers, and a recent Wall Street Journal survey showed her beating President Biden by 17 percentage points in a hypothetical contest — the biggest margin for any GOP candidate in the field. Increased scrutiny — including of Haley's failure to mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War during a town hall in New Hampshire last week — has followed.

Her prospects of actually reaching the general election still look grim. Trump swamps Haley and the rest of the GOP field in national and early-state polls, including South Carolina, where she served as governor for six years. The top item in a recent campaign missive lauding “Haley’s Week of Wins” was a Fox News headline that asked: Would New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s endorsement of Haley would “make a dent in Trump's massive lead in GOP presidential primary race?”

Aside from nicknaming Haley “birdbrain,” Trump and his allies largely ignored her until recent weeks. Last month, a super PAC backing the former president launched a television ad in New Hampshire that distorts her gubernatorial record on a state gas tax. The ad shows video of Haley saying she opposed such a tax and then saying she supported one, while omitting that she said she would support such a measure only if the state's income tax rates were cut by 2%.

As Haley’s prominence has grown, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once viewed as the top Republican challenger to Trump, and his allies have attacked the former ambassador as beholden to Wall Street, questioned her conservative bona fides and cast aspersions about her tenure as governor.

But neutral observers argue that if everything breaks Haley’s way, she has a narrow path to the GOP nomination.

The shoes of a supporter of former U.N. Ambassador and current
The shoes of a supporter of presidential candidate Nikki Haley next to a campaign sign. Nikki Haley campaign materials. Supporters have a wide choice of apparel emblazoned with Nikki Haley slogans. Nikki Haley signs are prepositioned for supporters at an Iowa campaign stop by the Republican presidential candidate.

“If she finishes strongly in Iowa, and by strongly, I would say second place ahead of DeSantis … it’s plausible she can come to New Hampshire and say, ‘Look, New Hampshire, it’s either me or Trump,'” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

The author of “Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics” said Haley has an edge in the Live Free or Die State over the other Republicans running.

“She has found a niche in New Hampshire among moderate voters, independents, people who have serious doubts about Donald Trump and don’t want him to be the nominee again,” Scala said, adding that such voters are also drawn to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s candidacy but find Haley more likable.

A poll of likely voters released by St. Anselm College last month found Haley rising in the state, winning the backing of 30% to Trump's 44%. Haley doubled her support since the last poll, while the former president held steady. Christie lagged behind at 12%, with the rest of the GOP field further behind.

Nikki Haley speaks to a man wearing U.S. flag-themed headgear
Kevin Boyens, 67, of Everly, Iowa, says he is an independent who will caucus for Nikki Haley. Vincent Bedard, left, and Erik Kruse of Bloomington, Minn., pose for a photo with Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley holding their 3-week-old baby Dominik Kruse.

Doug Gross, a Republican Des Moines lawyer who recently endorsed Haley, said he expects Trump to win Iowa. But if Haley has a strong showing in second place, that would give her momentum going into New Hampshire, he said.

“Then you have a shootout in her home state of South Carolina,” he said. “That’s as good as it could get for Nikki Haley.”

Gross is among Haley’s backers who wish she had spent more time in Iowa, though he is hopeful that a recent endorsement by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group with a significant presence in the state, could give her an organizational boost.

Haley, whose debate performances and voter town halls are spiked with a mix of Southern charm and acerbic wit, attempts to connect with Iowans by highlighting her own small-town roots.

“I was born and raised in a small rural town in South Carolina: 2,500 people, two stoplights,” Haley said recently, standing in front of an enormous green John Deere tractor and stacked bales of hay in a shed in Waukee, Iowa. “You couldn’t think about doing something wrong without somebody telling your mama.”

Rolls of hay on a flat landscape
Rolls of hay on a flat landscape
The view out a car window of a field in Iowa
Windmills and hay bales dot the Iowa landscape on the road between Sioux Center and Spirit Lake following the Nikki Haley campaign.

In the waning weeks before the caucuses, Haley is pressing her electability against Biden as well as her foreign policy credentials and traditional neocon views — notable bona fides at a time of Russia’s ongoing onslaught against Ukraine, Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel and growing concerns about China’s intentions in East Asia.

Such views cemented the support of Michelle Garland, a 52-year-old college psychology professor, after she saw Haley speak at a tony restaurant in Clear Lake.

“To use a word in Yiddish, she has chutzpah. She's genuine. She's authentic,” said Garland, an independent voter. “She doesn't say what people want to hear. She says what she feels. And if you don't like that, well, you can go elsewhere.”

A question-and-answer period takes up the bulk of the former ambassador’s campaign events. Haley spends more time talking to voters, taking selfies with supporters and signing campaign mementos such as her book “With All Due Respect: Defending America With Grit and Grace” than she does delivering her stump speech.

These are traits that have traditionally been key to winning the hearts and minds of Iowa voters.

“She could be your best girlfriend. Like, you know, we can open up a bottle of wine or have a coffee together and we would find just the human kind of association together,” said Claudia Ewald, 65, after asking Haley to sign a picture of them and her husband Dave at the Waukee gathering.

Nikki Haley speaks to a veteran wearing a cap
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley talks with a man wearing a cap identifying him as a Korean War veteran after her event at Waukee, Iowa. Haley spends more time interacting one-on-one with voters at her campaign stops than she does speaking onstage.

The picture was taken at a 2021 fundraiser for Gov. Kim Reynolds, the first time Ewald met Haley. She was instantly smitten, saying Haley was “a woman who was solid, who could be a consensus builder.”

“Her national security [background] was her primary strength,” Ewald said, before adding that she made a point of seeing other candidates including DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy before making a decision. “Nikki just kept coming up on top. She's a very genuine person.”

Haley does not overtly focus on her gender, despite it being an undercurrent in the first presidential election since the Supreme Court overturned federal protection of abortion rights.

But her remarks — whether about her role as a military wife and mom, firing back at her GOP rivals when they make gendered statements, or calling for “a badass woman” to be elected to the White House — appear to be aimed at the suburban female voters who could swing this year’s election.

Nikki Haley's shadow on the wall behind her as she speaks at a campaign event
Nikki Haley speaks in Spirit Lake, Iowa, in December.

This message and attitude have previously resonated with Iowan voters, noted David Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist who has advised Reynolds, as well as Iowa's Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Ashley Hinson.

“Iowa has elected a number of candidates who sound a lot like Nikki Haley … strong conservative women,” Kochel said, adding that Haley’s message is “compelling.” “Now the question is — is there enough time?”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.