She’s the flavour of the month in the state that holds the first presidential primary in the 2024 political year. That flavour is not made with vanilla extract.
Former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a former American ambassador to the United Nations and, suddenly, the biggest threat to Donald J. Trump in the New Hampshire Primary, has been barnstorming the Granite State, county by county, town by town, in some cases coffee klatch by coffee klatch. She’s undertaking an intensive ground game designed to win the hearts of Republicans and Independents and to claim the crown in the most-watched political sweepstakes in the United States: to emerge nationally as the principal Republican alternative to Mr. Trump.
Several recent voter surveys show her rising swiftly in the polls, not yet approaching Trump-level heights, to be sure, but leaving Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida – once regarded as the most formidable challenger to the former president – far behind, with support consistently at half that of Ms. Haley.
“If there’s a buzz about anyone,” says Thomas Rath, a former state attorney-general and GOP campaign veteran regarded as perhaps the savviest analyst of New Hampshire politics, “it’s about Nikki Haley.”
The relentlessness of her campaign effort is matched by the remorselessness of her campaign style. Hers is not a charm offensive.
Republican opponents of the American commitment to Ukraine? They’re guilty of pandering to “the thug Vladimir Putin.” Skeptics of American aid to Israel? You want Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists at the country’s doors? The two old men who are considered the likely candidates in the 2024 general election? Move aside for a new generation, and for a woman. Republicans in Washington? They’re compliant in – actually they’re guilty of – the explosion of spending on, among other things, COVID-19 assistance. GOP isolationists? You’re all but inviting a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
In town meetings like the one in the tranquil setting of a riverside wedding venue here, Ms. Haley displays a composite of the leading figures in American politics – both combative (like Mr. Trump) and compassionate (like Joe Biden). Earlier this month she dismissed businessman Vivek Ramaswamy as “scum.” At campaign stops she talks about her husband, Michael, in Africa on a year-long military stint with the Army National Guard and, in a critique of poor medical coverage for veterans, argues, “We can’t only love our veterans when they’re gone, we have to love them when they’re home.”
For all of her pugnacity, Ms. Haley remains the moderate in the Republican race, campaigning on the Goldilocks principle, cultivating the notion that in both record and rhetoric she is not too hot and not too cold – which may be why she can argue that the country should seek a middle ground on abortion rights and, days later, support a six-week abortion ban. But the Republican electorate has been transformed under Mr. Trump, with the median temperature no longer tepid the way it was when the dynastic royalty of the old GOP, the Bushes (1980, 1988, 1992, 2000) and the Romneys (1968, 2008, 2012), sought support here in New Hampshire.
And so what does she say of Mr. Trump himself, the president who appointed her to the United Nations position? When she talks of “negativity” and “baggage,” there’s no mystery who the target is of those two words. And in an elegant rhetorical equipoise showing graciousness and firmness, loyalty and independence, she says, “President Trump was the right president at the right time. But the reality is that chaos follows him. When we’ve got an economy out of control and wars around the world, we can’t afford any more chaos.”
Over the years New Hampshire voters have been witness to several astonishing primary campaigns: John F. Kennedy trudging bare-headed through the snow in 1960. Edmund Muskie failing to meet expectations and losing the front-runner mantle in 1972. Gary Hart employing a “new ideas” mantra to pull off a stunning upset in 1984. George H.W. Bush battling back from a bruising Iowa defeat to establish fresh momentum in 1988. Bill Clinton fighting off charges of marital infidelity and surviving the New Hampshire Primary as the “comeback kid.” John McCain upsetting George W. Bush in 2000. And more.
But this campaign, with Mr. Trump winning the support of 42 per cent in the respected Granite State poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center for CNN, has a distinctiveness all its own.
The 45th president has been unable to crack the 50-per-cent mark. Now Ms. Haley is at 20 per cent; months earlier, she was in mid single figures, far behind Mr. DeSantis, now in free-fall here. In classic New Hampshire style – politics here is conducted more like a contest for country commissioner in a rural backwater than for the White House, often in coffee-shop conversations and then in town meetings with microphones – she courted small groups of voters until her debate performances produced crowds like the one here in Hooksett. Many people who had registered days earlier were shunted off to stand behind the barn-like structure, the candidate far out of sight.
One of those who managed to get inside was a girl in Grade 5 in a nearby school, and she asked the woman who would be president how she came to be a candidate. “Strong women,” Ms. Haley counselled, “make strong leaders.”
Ms. Haley is coming on strong – but she still faces big hurdles, and the wrath of Mr. Trump, who now refers to her as “Birdbrain.” But two months before New Hampshire votes, Ms. Haley, who next week begins a $10-million media buy in Iowa and New Hampshire, is positioning herself as the early bird, hoping to soar her way to an upset victory.