New Hampshire voters take note as Haley rises in the polls

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Kathy Rice had yet to attend any 2024 campaign stops before this week, but when former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced a town hall in her hometown, the 54-year-old decided to see what the buzz around her was about. She went into the event here hoping to hear from Haley on three key issues: the economy, immigration and foreign policy.

“She’s great,” Rice said as she left. “She’s very powerful. She’s very relatable. And she gets it.”

It was just short of an endorsement.

“We’re lucky here in New Hampshire that we get a chance to see so many different candidates,” she said.

For weeks Haley has been gaining momentum in the Granite State, where recent polls show her in second place — well behind former President Donald Trump but increasingly ahead of the other candidates seeking to consolidate the state’s non-Trump vote. Despite the former president’s overwhelming lead, Haley’s campaign is hoping she can seal the deal with undecided voters like Rice as she runs on her record as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations and the six years she led the Palmetto State.

Best case scenario for the campaign, early state voters – known for breaking late in ways that defy conventional wisdom – might still surprise the country and support someone who isn’t the former president. For now, many voters still want to be courted.

“We’ve got to do whatever it takes to save America,” Haley said at her second town hall of the day, in Raymond. “But in order to do that, it’s gonna take a lot of courage, courage from every single person in this room — and the overflow room.”

A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released last week showed that 20% of likely GOP primary voters would support her, up from 12% in September, placing her firmly in second place. Trump received support from 42% of primary voters, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received 14%, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was backed by 9% and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy had 8%. The poll found that 52% of likely GOP primary voters in the state had made up their mind.

Haley’s debate performances and rise in early state polling numbers — here in New Hampshire, as well as South Carolina and Iowa — have led to new interest from GOP megadonors. But the upswing has also led to increased scrutiny and criticism from her rivals, particularly of her foreign policy record.

Attacks on all sides

Her primary opponents have attacked those credentials from all sides. DeSantis and the super PAC backing him have hammered her from the right, going after her work recruiting Chinese business to South Carolina when she served as governor from 2011 to 2017.

Ramaswamy, with whom she’s shared some of the sharpest exchanges in the past three primary debates, has consistently tried to brand her as a hawk. In the first debate, he mockingly congratulated her on future positions on the boards of defense contractors, and in the third debate, he called her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels,” a reference to the unpopular former vice president and his role in shaping foreign policy under former President George W. Bush.

Several of her rivals jumped at the opportunity to blast her proposal earlier this month that all social media users should be verified by name, which she cited as a national security issue. Haley later walked the policy back.

But those moments don’t always resonate on the trail. Kay Vasile, a 59-year-old office manager from Barrington who attended the Raymond town hall, hadn’t heard about the social media proposal.

But she was struck by the way Haley talked about veterans’ issues, the impact those policies have on families and the need to provide better mental health services. Haley’s husband, an Afghanistan veteran, is currently deployed with the South Carolina National Guard. Vasile, who said her husband was in the Air Force for 37 years, brought up veterans’ care when it was her turn in the photo line following the town hall.

“I just thanked her for that and let her know that, you know, it’s true,” she said. “When he came back from Iraq it was – the guard base did as good as they could with integrating and helping with that, but it needs to be longer.”

Still, she has more research to do.

“I like Chris Christie, what he has to say. I loved (South Carolina Sen. Tim) Scott and I liked (former Vice President Mike) Pence, but they’re gone,” she said. “So, she’s my next one.”

Since Haley launched her presidential campaign in February, she has held more than 60 events in the state across 10 counties. This week, her campaign released the slate of New Hampshire delegates that will represent her at the Republican National Convention next summer, touting it as evidence of the “depth of support” she has there.

The campaign recently announced a $10 million ad buy reservation in New Hampshire and Iowa across digital, TV and radio.

“We have a long way to go and there’s going to be continued movement within the field here,” said veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist Jim Merrill. “But I think where she is in New Hampshire comes as a product of her sweat equity and the time she’s put in here.”

New Hampshire Republican Gov.Chris Sununu, who has not endorsed but has attended campaign events with most of the major candidates, said nine weeks is plenty of time for candidates to make an impression on Republican and independent voters, many whom haven’t decided who they’ll support.

“Sometime after Thanksgiving we’ll have those hard conversations,” said Sununu. “Sometimes the awkward conversations with the weird uncles and the crazy cousins that come over for Thanksgiving. But that’s the way we do it.”

Nine weeks left

Part of making an impression is rolling with the punches. During the question and answer session of the Hooksett town hall, Haley complimented 9-year-old Hannah Kesselring on her hat, a piece of Haley campaign swag.

“Thank you, one of your guys gave it to me for free,” she said, setting off a wave of laughter through the crowd.

“I want you to tell me which guy that was, because we don’t do things for free,” Haley replied, drawing more laughs.

Kesselring then asked what Haley would tackle first if elected. Later, flanked by her parents Steve and Kim, Hannah said she thought Haley’s answer — she said she would hire new agency heads — was “spot on” and called Haley “awesome.”

Steve, a 40-year-old small business owner, said he wanted to hear from Haley because he liked what’d he’d seen of her at the United Nations (and because Hannah said she wanted to meet Haley after watching the third GOP debate). But the event hadn’t helped narrow down his options.

“I would say that, yes, I do like a lot of what DeSantis has to say. I do like a lot of what Haley has to say. And I like what Trump did,” he said. “So at the end of the day, it’s really a tough, split decision to know where to go.”

Not everyone left undecided. New Hampshire state Rep. Stephen Pearson said he was impressed by Haley’s performance at the first GOP debate, but wanted to hear her off the debate stage. By the end of the town hall, he’d decided to endorse her.

Pearson said he appreciated Haley’s efforts to share “hard truths” – things people need to hear even if they may not like it. And as a lieutenant in the Manchester Fire Department, he appreciated her comments on fentanyl, which has made the ongoing opioid epidemic in the city worse.

“I see the reality,” he said. “It’s something that is just devastating to this country.”

John Hallinan, a 72-year-old security head for local circuit courts, described himself as an independent who is frustrated with the Republican Party’s position on abortion in the wake of recent electoral losses. Haley’s comments in past debates about seeking consensus on the issue resonated with him.

He also saw her as a better option than the front-runner. He liked Trump’s policies, but had grown tired of the “noise” surrounding him.

“Right now, to me, his candidacy is more of a revenge tour, and that bothers me,” he said. “She’s refreshing. She’s an underdog. She’s an achiever. I have followed her since she was at the UN. Very impressed tonight.”

Foreign policy bona fides

At the center of Haley’s case for her candidacy has been the two years she served as US ambassador to the United Nations. Her stump speech is peppered with nods to her time there dealing with China, Russia and Iran, while working with US allies like Israel and Ukraine.

At one point, Haley criticized the congressional debate over funding for the border, aid to Ukraine and aid to Israel, arguing all three are critical.

“There’s a reason the Taiwanese want us in the West to support the Ukrainians: because they know if Ukraine wins, China won’t invade Taiwan. There’s a reason the Ukrainians want us to support the Israelis: because they know the dangers that if Iran wins, for them, Russia wins,” she said. “It’s all connected.”

Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general and controversial, failed 2022 Republican nominee for Senate in New Hampshire, tried to inoculate Haley from the criticisms of her foreign policy while introducing her.

“She knows what it’s like when a service member comes home after being in a combat zone for a year and has to readjust to family life and to life outside of a combat zone,” Bolduc, the chairman of her New Hampshire campaign, told the audience in Hooksett. “So those people out there that call her a war monger or someone who’s beating a war drum, have no idea what they’re talking about.”

In an interview, he said that Haley is about “preventing conflict, preventing wars.”

Jeffrey Reaume, a 56-year-old engineer from Portsmouth, said he was still surveying the field after Haley’s Raymond town hall and described her foreign policy as a “mixed bag” for him.

“I’m for supporting Ukraine. I’m for supporting Israel, to a point,” he said.

“I think making China out to be the big bad wolf that can’t be dealt with any other way — I think that we’ve done that before. It doesn’t usually work out well.”

But Natalie Cote, a 59-year-old artist from Raymond, called Haley “absolutely brilliant” as she walked out of the Monday night town hall, her first time seeing her in person.

“I feel her experience really suits the problems that we’re having in the world today,” she said.

Asked how she might vote in the primary, however, she stayed noncommittal.

“I need to do more research,” she said.

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