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Nikki Haley Gets the Two-Person Race She Wanted

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.


Haley looked past DeSantis immediately after Iowa to set her sights on Trump almost exclusively in New Hampshire.

She stepped over the frozen corpse of the rival campaign and kept sledding along. “Boy,” Nikki Haley exclaimed as the sun set on the coast, and on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, “are things changing fast.” Her supporters cheered. Haley barely looked back.

“I want to say to Ron, he ran a great race,” Haley said, breaking the news of his exit to a crowd packed inside a local lobster pound on a bitter and raw Sunday. “He’s been a good governor, and we wish him well,” she continued. “Having said that, it’s now one fella and one lady left.”

And with that, the former ambassador to the United Nations turned away. DeSantis’ departure provided a jolt of energy to the Haley campaign to be sure, but DeSantis was not the problem. He was polling barely above 6% in this state when he abruptly dropped out, citing a self-serving (but bogus) Winston Churchill quotation. Surviving DeSantis only ensures Haley second place, as she trails former President Trump by more than 17 points in the Granite State per the RealClearPolitics Average.

Yes, it is now a two-person race. Haley has 48 hours to secure a real win against Trump or settle for a moral victory against DeSantis. “May the best woman win,” she said, before returning to the business of campaigning, taking photos, and shaking hands on the eve of the first-in-the nation primary.

The DeSantis news arrived by video. After coming up short in Iowa, the state where he had put so much money and expectation, the Florida governor shifted his strategy to make a play for South Carolina, parachuting into New Hampshire only infrequently, leaving surrogates inside the state crestfallen and confused. “I have no idea what the plan is,” Jason Osborne, the Republican majority leader of the state legislature, told RCP Thursday. DeSantis was scheduled to appear in Manchester Sunday afternoon but released his concession statement from Tallahassee instead.

“If there was anything I could do to produce a favorable outcome – more campaign stops, more interviews – I’d do it. But I can’t ask our supporters to volunteer their time and donate their resources if we don’t have a clear path to victory,” DeSantis said before suspending his campaign, but not until after he endorsed Trump and disparaged Haley as an avatar “of warmed-over corporatism.”

DeSantis was once considered the frontrunner’s chief rival, and he often presented himself to voters as the answer to Trumpism without Trump. But in 2024, DeSantis learned that too few Republican primary voters were asking the question the way he had framed it. The pandemic that catapulted DeSantis to conservative stardom had ended. His super PAC imploded. Trump spent more time in court than on a debate stage, becoming a populist martyr while sidestepping scrutiny. All of this, DeSantis noted during an RCP interview shortly before the end, was “beyond my control.”

“We were kind of up against the wind with the Fox News, nonstop, earned media onslaught,” Texas Rep. Chip Roy said Sunday, while describing how constant coverage of the Trump indictments fundamentally altered the race. A top DeSantis surrogate, Roy told RCP that despite those headwinds, the governor was “hanging on in the fall.” Then, Iowa. “She dropped $26 million on him,” Roy said of Haley’s ad blitz in the Hawkeye State.

The Texas conservative said that “bottom line” a majority of Republicans, “roughly 50%,” and perhaps more in New Hampshire in South Carolina, “are pretty locked in for the former president.” Roy believes there was a path for DeSantis until Haley blocked it.

“Nikki Haley denied the American people a head-to-head match here,” he said. “I’m just going to be blunt, she did it out of hubris. It wasn’t a selfless play. She had no shot at being the nominee. She has no shot. She’s not going to win New Hampshire. She’s not going to win her home state of South Carolina. The only thing she did was to provide a foil by attracting establishment money.”

“I’ll put it this way,” Roy concluded, “Nikki Haley owns the results.”

That’s fine with Haley. She looked past DeSantis immediately after Iowa to set her sights on Trump almost exclusively in New Hampshire. To blunt the person he sees as the last obstacle to a third Republican nomination, Trump brought a South Carolina delegation, led by Gov. Henry McMaster, up north to stump for him and secured an endorsement from Tim Scott – who had dropped out before Iowa and whom Haley had appointed to the Senate.

Haley parried by telling RealClearPolitics during a stop in Epping that it was “concerning” that Trump cares more about endorsements “than he does about fighting for the people.” Stepping up the offensive, she said Trump “proved, when he was president that he’s good at breaking things, but he also proved he doesn’t know how to fix them. Well, the country’s broken.”

Federal agencies need reform, taxes ought to be cut, pandemic learning losses must be rectified, Haley said rattling off a list of priorities. Another thing she promised to do as president: Secure the border and stop the flow of fentanyl from China. “He didn’t do any of that,” she said of the lapses that he failed, in her estimation, to address.

“We need someone that’s going to now go in and fix it,” she concluded. “He hasn’t done that. That’s our goal, to make sure we go and we right this ship.”

Independent voters are critical to Haley if she is to get that chance. In New Hampshire, she takes her shots at President Biden as often as she hits Trump. It is an approach that appeals to Joan Correll, a retired architect who describes her voting preference as “ABT: Anyone But Trump.”

DeSantis was never appealing “because he was too much like Trump,” Correll explained. An independent voter from Hampton, she pulled Haley aside at Brown’s Lobster Pound with a single, main concern.

“I said, ‘I have one question for you. It really bothers me that you said you’d support Trump if he was the nominee.’” The reply from Haley: “Kamala Harris would be a worse choice.” This was a satisfactory answer to Correll, who explained that she plans to support Haley “because my vote is better used as an independent going Republican rather than going Democrat and writing in Joe Biden.”

According to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Haley needs more of this. Much more. Luntz predicted that the DeSantis exit will boost Trump in the same way that Former New Jersey Chris Christie leaving the race helps Haley. “This could put him over the 50% mark that he wants so much,” Luntz said of Trump post-DeSantis, adding that for Haley, “this is do or die. This is what you look forward to in politics: The next 48 hours decides the nomination.”

Haley must capitalize on “the curiosity advantage,” Luntz said, as many voters are still learning about the former diplomat, while “there is nothing new about Donald Trump. You’ve decided whether you are voting for him, but you haven’t decided about Nikki, so she has room to climb, but it will be a tough climb to make.” He encouraged her to drive the message that a second Trump term would bring “confusion and chaos.”

“That is her strongest message. The other one is that she is more electable,” Luntz concluded. According to the RealClearPolitics Average, Trump beats Biden in a theoretical head-to-head matchup by two points. Haley, in a similar contest, leads the president by a little more than a point. A recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, meanwhile, found that more than half of Americans, 58%, would not vote for Trump if he were convicted of a crime by a jury.

Gov. Chris Sununu delivered a version of that message to a packed high school auditorium in Exeter when he bellowed “I am tired of losing, I’m tired of losers, and I’m sure as hell tired of Donald Trump.”

Matt Stough, a defense contractor from Exeter, predicted that if Republicans don’t choose a different nominee, “Trump will tongue tie himself as usual, and not make any sense to anybody.” A Republican voter, he said that if Haley doesn’t make it to November, “I’d vote Biden because I don’t want Trump again.”

For Suzan Stough, a retiree, age is the determining factor. “I’m not a fan of either one. I’d like to see an age cap on the president. Seriously,” she said. “They have a lot of power, and I’d like to see someone with a little more cognitive ability.”

“I’m a hospice volunteer for people living with dementia, so I know a little bit about dementia. It scares me a little bit,” she said of the idea of a second term for either Biden or Trump. “I’m not an expert, but I just want to know that the person leading our country is able to handle it. I don’t know about either one of those two. So, Nikki, please win!”

Many voters gathered to hear Haley were on that same page, including Robert McCown, a retiree and lifelong Democrat from nearby Hampton Falls who plans to vote in the Republican primary for the first time. He is concerned with the drug trade across the southern border. “He assigned that to Kamala,” he said. “She was supposed to take care of the flow of drugs, and instead she has done nothing.”

“I worry about Biden’s age, and should Harris take over and become president, it would be a do-nothing presidency,” he continued. Asked whom he would favor if the election came down to Trump and Biden again, McCown sighed, “Is Canada an option?”

On stage to introduce Haley, Judith Sheindlin, the 81-year-old daytime television host better known as “Judge Judy,” offered a verdict to the delight of the crowd.

“I’m not here to bash the competition, although I’m perfectly capable of doing that,” she said. “Suffice it to say that when you teach a child not to put their hand over a flame, you do that because you know they’re going to get burned. Well, we’ve gotten burned.”

“We have already seen what these two presidencies look like,” the celebrity judge said. “It’s time for Nikki Haley. This is her moment. She is a star!”

Afterward, the candidate strode out to the “Eye of the Tiger” by the 1980s rock band Survivor. “Can you hear that sound?” Haley asked as she began her remarks before an energized crowd. “That’s the sound of a two-person race.”


This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

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