Nikki Haley appeals to New Hampshire’s anti-Trump voters as polls narrow

Nikki Haley with supporters in Hampton, New Hampshire
Nikki Haley with supporters in Hampton, New Hampshire. The state's rules mean non-Republicans can vote in the primary - AFP via Getty Images
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At a campaign rally in a nondescript function room of a Hilton hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire, hundreds of potential supporters gathered to listen to Nikki Haley’s pitch.

After warming the crowd up with country music, she gave her strident views on foreign intervention, border control and federal debt, and delivered her well-rehearsed finale: “Tell everybody that this is a movement, that is going to finally change the direction of where we are in our country and where we are in the world. I promise you our best days are yet to come.”

The stump speech was mostly the same as at her events in Iowa the previous week, and will probably change little as she moves to her home state, South Carolina, next month. The gruelling schedule gives presidential candidates little time for major changes in script.

But buoyed by her third-place result in Iowa and polling that shows she is in contention to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Mrs Haley has latched onto a new message: that she alone can ensure that Donald Trump does not win back the White House.

“Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she told the crowd, adding that unless she is the Republican nominee, November’s election will be a “nail-biter”.

Her adverts and campaign stop soundbites present her as the anti-Trump candidate, and she has finally ruled out serving in his administration.

After weeks of lukewarm attacks on her rival, she says Mr Trump is “vindictive”, a profligate spender and that the primary is a “two-horse race”. If she isn’t the nominee, she says, then Mr Trump will win the presidency.

Mrs Haley’s shift in campaign strategy in New Hampshire can be explained by a quirk of the state Republican Party’s rulebook. Unlike in Iowa, New Hampshire voters who are not registered as either Democrats or Republicans are eligible to cast a ballot in either party’s primary.

That system means that Mrs Haley can pitch for the support of a powerful constituency of both Republicans and middle-ground voters who consider themselves “Never Trumpers” – and will do anything to keep her main rival out of the White House.

Nikki Haley speaks to supporters in Hampton, New Hampshire
By highlighting the chaos that trails Donald Trump, the former UN ambassador has a slim chance of beating him - AFP via Getty Images

One of them is Ruth Reed, 54, who runs an animal care business.

“I support Nikki Haley after tonight,” she said after hearing Mrs Haley on Friday night. “I was leaning towards her already, because I don’t want Trump to get the nomination.

“I’m not voting for Biden either. I just don’t want a rematch, I don’t want to see Trump and Biden. She’s a decent person and a role model, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

Peter Cronin, who was dragged to the rally by his 21-year-old daughter, adds: “I’m convinced that I would prefer her to either of the other two guys in November. She is better than the alternative.”

In what seems an impossible battle to overtake Mr Trump’s 50-point poll lead among registered Republicans, her aides think the Never Trumper strategy could be Mrs Haley’s secret weapon.

Vikram Mansharamani, her campaign co-chair in New Hampshire, told The Telegraph: “At this point, it is very clearly a two-person race.”

He added: “As the rubber meets the road going into the primary next week, it is turning into: ‘Why am I better than the other guy? Why is this person worse than me?’”

It is true that Ron DeSantis, the other candidate in the Republican race who beat Mrs Haley to second place in Iowa, stands little chance of picking up significant support in New Hampshire.

After his disappointingly narrow win over Mrs Haley in the Hawkeye State on Monday, the Super PAC campaign group backing his candidacy began sacking staff and moving most of the remainder to South Carolina. Polls suggest he will attract between four and six per cent of the vote.

Mrs Haley’s shift in campaign rhetoric and latest volley of attacks on Mr Trump have unsurprisingly not been taken lying down.

“As you know, Nikki Haley in particular is counting on the Democrats and liberals to infiltrate the Republican primary,” the former president said at a rally in Atkinson, New Hampshire on Tuesday.

He has also zeroed in on Mrs Haley’s old-fashioned Republican interventionism, attacking her support for Ukraine in a conflict he says he would end “in one day”.

Polls show that 48 per cent of Republican voters nationally think the US is giving too much support for Ukraine, while Mrs Haley argues that supporting Kyiv is a crucial ballast against the ambitions of Russia.

Mr Trump has also suggested, falsely, that her Indian heritage means she is ineligible to run for president.

“She’s a globalist, you know,” he told supporters at a well-attended rally this month. “She likes the globe.”

But there is also common ground between the two candidates. Both say they would scrap the green subsidies that are the centrepiece of Joe Biden’s policy agenda, and roll back restrictions on oil and gas extraction.

They agree that tackling illegal immigration on the southern US border would be a priority on the first day of their administrations. Both have expressed lukewarm opposition to abortion that would likely result in no change to federal law.

By making New Hampshire a referendum on the former president’s legacy, Mrs Haley therefore has a difficult task. She must sell Mr Trump’s policies to some of his most outspoken detractors, while trying to win over his supporters by attacking him.

She hopes to do that by arguing that unlike Mr Trump, she has never lost an election.

“The reality is, who lost the House for us? Who lost the Senate? Who lost the White House?” she told reporters at a campaign stop on Thursday. “Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump.”

To her supporters at the rally on Friday, she added: “If you look at those head-to-head polls, look at any of them… I lead by 17 points.”

However, experts suggest the true figure is likely closer to an eight-point lead, and may struggle to convince Republican voters.

‘Already a dead end’

Philip van Scheltinga, a pollster for Redfield & Wilton Strategies, said: “Haley’s argument for picking her fundamentally rests on the idea that someone with mostly the same policies of Trump but none of the personal baggage would outperform Trump in the general election against Biden.”

He added: “To most other Republican voters, however, Trump is winning anyways. Every poll has Trump ahead of Biden.

“The argument that Trump will not win and therefore needs to be replaced by a winner is already a dead end among Republican voters.”

With two days to go until polls open, the exact state of the race in New Hampshire remains unclear, because the addition of independent voters has made polling more difficult.

Residents have always taken their role in conducting the first primary ballot very seriously, and argue that Iowa cannot be considered the true start of the race because voters choose their candidates in public meetings, not polling booths.

In 1988, John Sununu, the state’s then-governor, said: “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.” His son, Chris, is the current governor and one of Mrs Haley’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders.

A sense of excitement, too, has descended on the area as it faces its first competitive Republican primary for eight years. Joshua Leary, a 28-year-old independent voter, stressed that the result in New Hampshire, the fifth smallest state, can have an outsize impact on the race.

“Back in the 90s, Bill Clinton lost Iowa tremendously and then came back and won New Hampshire and became president,” he said. “All it takes is one vote, one tilt and the whole thing just flips.”

Like many in the state, Mr Leary is a Never Trumper. “For me, imagining Trump’s reaction if he was to lose by one vote…” he said, pausing for thought. “It would just make him just lose everything.”

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