Nikki Haley seeks to build on post-debate momentum with Iowa return

Chip Somodevilla
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DES MOINES, Iowa — While Nikki Haley was on the debate stage in Milwaukee last month, her Iowa state director’s phone was blowing up.

“Just from start to end during the debate, I got more than 400 texts and emails from different people saying, ‘I’m in,’” Bill Mackey told NBC News, saying he heard from many Iowa voters that saw her standout performance as “their moment of saying ‘OK, I’ve seen enough.’”

It’s with that new level of attention and expectation that Haley returns to Iowa Friday — her first swing through the Hawkeye State in several weeks, exactly four months ahead of the Jan. 15 caucuses. But the primary debate’s impact has already been visible elsewhere: At two separate events in South Carolina, Haley attracted more than 1,000 attendees — exceeding both expectations and venue capacity. Her campaign raked in over $1 million in fundraising in the days immediately after the debate. And a new Monmouth University-Washington Post poll showed her pulling away from the pack into second place in her home state, though still well behind Donald Trump.

The key, analysts say, is translating all of that into the first state of 2024, which can be a critical source of momentum — or a campaign-ending roadblock — for presidential campaigns.

“We’re touching every hand, we’re answering every question,” Haley told NBC News, echoing the strategy she’s tried to follow throughout the early primary states — Iowa included.

The former South Carolina governor has done 36 events in Iowa in her seven months as a candidate — the most among the 2024 hopefuls, according to an NBC News review of candidate schedules — and she’ll add another seven this weekend.

Though her presence is robust, her campaign operation is lean, with only a handful of paid staffers on the ground. But the campaign has volunteers numbering in the “hundreds,” it says, all operating off the same ethos.

“We’re not seeking votes, we’re seeking relationships,” Mackey told NBC News, calling that the campaign’s “mantra” in the Hawkeye State and a recognition of what it takes to build up for the rigorous caucus process.

That process takes a widespread effort or “bodies,” as Jimmy Centers, a former communications adviser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a veteran of presidential campaigns in Iowa, calls it.

“For any candidate, they have to make sure that they have people on the ground … These caucus campaigns don’t build themselves,” Centers said.

“As it pertains to Iowa, I can honestly tell you the buzz is real,” said Emily Sukup-Schmitt, the Iowa co-chair of Haley’s campaign, referencing a steady stream of outreach from fellow Iowans about joining Haley’s cause in the last few weeks. “I think the debate showed she is who she’s always said she was. In politics, that’s pretty rare.”

Craig Reber from Dubuque, for example, told NBC News that he is fed up with President Joe Biden and, after decades of voting as a Democrat, will switch parties to caucus for Haley in 2024.

“I like Nikki because of her experience. I like her youth, her vitality. We need somebody who can step right in, boots on the ground, knows what’s going on internationally, and we need a strong leader,” he said. “And I think Nikki can do that.”

At least, at some point. Reber also had suggestions of what he’d like to see from his favored candidate.

“I think she should make a few more appearances,” Reber conceded. “I mean, DeSantis was everywhere, it seems like,” referencing a specific stop DeSantis made to the iconic “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville. “Let’s face it: That plays well in Iowa.”

Haley has been touting a recent poll showing her doing better against Biden than her GOP rivals. But to face off with Biden, she’ll first have to go through Trump. Haley, along with the rest of the field, may only have one shot.

“Here’s the stark reality,” Centers warned. “If President Trump wins Iowa by a large margin, this nomination fight is likely over.”

That’s why he’s urging everyone else to be on the ground.

“This is going to be a caucus that’s not unlike others in that it breaks late,” the veteran GOP operative said. “In order to position yourself to be that person that they break for late, you’ve got to be here now. Not just … staged events where you give this stump speech and shake hands and take photos afterwards. No, this needs to be a conversation. And I’ll give Haley credit: In the past she has done that, and done that well.”

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