MANCHESTER, NH — As Republicans here search for a standard bearer, Nikki Haley is finding herself in short supply, which GOP insiders say could derail her long-shot bid to defeat former President Donald Trump in Tuesday’s primary.
Haley refused to go toe-to-toe with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, forcing the cancellation of two scheduled debates in New Hampshire — one sponsored by ABC News and the other by CNN. His schedule is light for campaign stops in a state where candidates typically fill their days with events. And last month, he stopped taking questions from voters on stage after failing to identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War.
Haley’s team believes that less of him will be more in a race of three candidates, one of whom — DeSantis — has already decided to pack him in and move his faltering campaign to South Carolina.
It’s a bad bet, said Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist based in New Hampshire, who has sanctified the state’s history of vetting presidential candidates through free-flowing town hall-style forums. Haley’s refusal to debate and take questions at her first post-event in Iowa could kill her campaign, he said.
Carney, who abstained from the race, added: “As the current president, maybe, or as the front-runner — of course you’re the front-runner, you’re not taking any chances.” “But when you’re in second place? You should throw f—ing Hail Marys. You have five nights left.”
In interviews with more than a half-dozen Republican officials and party strategists familiar with the presidential election in New Hampshire, NBC News found no one who thought Haley would benefit from distancing herself from voters. But he also faces the reality that his uphill battle has been exacerbated by businessman Vivek Ramaswamy dropping out of the race on Monday and backing Trump.
“Everybody in New Hampshire is disappointed” that Haley chose not to debate, said state Republican National Committeewoman Julianna Bergeron, who did not endorse the candidate. Refusing to take questions from voters on the stump creates a similar sentiment, he said, and Haley’s high-stakes campaign could turn off voters who are still undecided.
“I can’t be positive,” Bergeron said, “but, yeah, I think it’s important.”
Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Haley, dismissed the idea that Haley was running away from New Hampshire voters.
“This is complete and utter nonsense,” Perez-Cubas said. “He landed at 4 a.m. after Iowa and had a full day of local press, retail stops, meetings with constituents and a rally in the North Country. After a short layover, he was back [in South Carolina] to see his family this morning, he’s back in New Hampshire today with two stops tonight and a straight schedule until Election Day.”
One of Haley’s New Hampshire supporters, former state Rep. Kim Rice, hailed the former United Nations ambassador as making “a lot” of events and “a lot of retail stops” in the state and “just wrapped them all up.”
“Nikki Haley is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met,” added Rice. “He’s going to work hard, shake every hand to win every vote in New Hampshire.”
Suffolk University/NBC10 Boston/Boston Globe request Among likely New Hampshire primary voters released Wednesday, Trump is tied for third with 50%, Haley with 34% and DeSantis with 5%.
DeSantis, noting that it has been significantly reduced in New Hampshire South Carolina, he hopes to surprise former state governor Haley and get past her and extend his embattled candidacy. But even as she downplayed expectations for her performance in next week’s Granite State primary, Haley raised hers, declaring it was her and Trump after Iowa. now locked in a two-man race.
Haley’s decision to avoid the debates, which Trump has skipped since they began last summer, gave DeSantis more license to bolt from New Hampshire. But that didn’t absolve Haley from the prospect of a stronger campaign here. He made it clear that the state is central to his strategy, famously telling voters in New Hampshire in early January. “fix” the result From the Iowa caucuses.
“He got famous and then they put him in a bubble,” said Michael Biundo, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire who worked as a senior adviser to Ramaswamy.
“He’s behind,” Biundo added, “and to cancel the debate and treat New Hampshire like it’s not first in the nation and it’s one of the Super Tuesday states — how it’s treated — I think it’s a big mistake. We have a different mindset here.” .
Since the debates are a portal to a large audience rather than small town hall forums, the choice to draw them is especially reserved for Republicans who believe voters have a chance to evaluate the candidates as they answer questions.
“Ambassador Haley’s decision not to hold a debate seems reckless,” said Republican state Rep. Bill Boyd. He called her approach a “huge missed opportunity” to appeal to undecided voters like himself.
“Anything that happens between now and Tuesday will affect my decision-making,” he said, adding that he was “disappointed” with the choice to reject the “time-honored tradition” of using statewide debates to talk. voters are here.
But the question-and-answer sessions that make New Hampshire voters famous or infamous are important to the state’s political identity. Traditionally, candidates have crisscrossed the small state in a wild sprint between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, speaking to four or five separate audiences in one day. Finally, they almost always open themselves up to rhetorical jabs and incitement from the crowd.
“If someone is lying or not telling the truth, you don’t need the press to call them out in New Hampshire,” Bergeron said. “Because someone will call them at one of the house parties.”
The combination of a short window between races, the ease of travel from one end of the state to the other, and a more intimate setting than arena rallies make New Hampshire a unique location as the quadrennial week-long political Lollapalooza.
Haley has good reason to understand this: Between the last week of May and Jan. 24, she not only held more events than her remaining rivals — 46 to DeSantis’ 43 to Trump’s seven — but she also tracked DeSantis’ numbers in the state. dropped after choosing not to take questions from voters or the media early in his campaign.
But Haley shows up moves in the opposite direction. In the state, which now represents ground zero in her fight against Trump, Haley has held one public event since Tuesday, with another scheduled for Tuesday: a rally with Gov. Chris Sununu, New Hampshire’s most prominent supporter.
Haley also gives a stripped-down version of her stump speech and ends weeks without taking questions, though she often stays to pose for pictures and make small talk with attendees. (He also took questions during “telephone town halls” he held last week to replace events canceled due to bad weather.) His new format raised eyebrows in Iowa, but was even more noticeable when he did the same in New Hampshire on Tuesday. event.
“I’m the only one who doesn’t run a basement campaign,” DeSantis said Wednesday at a campaign stop in Hampton, NH.
While some New Hampshire Republicans have criticized Haley for not campaigning more aggressively there this week, DeSantis is opting out of the state and Trump is appearing only at nighttime rallies. Voters are still bombarded with ads in their mailboxes, but the presence of GOP candidates is dwindling. Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, the longtime Democratic front-runner, has announced more public events than any Republican by the end of this week.
Rick Gorka, who served as a spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said of Haley: “Avoiding the press is not a winning strategy, and hoping for a good showing at this point is like buying a participation trophy.” “It might make you feel good, but it’s pointless.”
Haley added two stops to her schedule by the end of the week and may have more. But some supporters here say they are worried about Trump’s lead growing after Ramaswamy abandoned and endorsed him after the Iowa caucuses.
“Ramaswamy’s exit from the presidential race will likely widen the gap between President Trump and Nikki Haley in New Hampshire,” said one Haley donor in the state.
Sean Van Anglen, a onetime Haley supporter who now says he’s undecided, expressed disappointment with the debate decision and light schedule.
“Looks like Haley has given up,” he said.