Jan 19, 2024 - Politics & Policy

With campaign on the line, Nikki Haley plays it safe in New Hampshire

Nikki Haley speaks into a microphone wearing an orange sweater.

Nikki Haley speaks at an event in Bretton Woods, N.H., on Tuesday. Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nikki Haley's confident debate performances have boosted her run for president, but she and her team have been cautious on the campaign trail in the days before the make-or-break New Hampshire primary.

Why it matters: The former South Carolina governor is betting that a risk-averse, disciplined approach — along with millions of dollars in ads — will save her candidacy in New Hampshire after a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa's caucuses.

  • Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire is crucial to Haley. Polls have shown her within striking distance of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, and a win or close second would propel her toward a tough fight in her native South Carolina.

Zoom in: Trump has responded to Haley's polling rise with a barrage of attacks, and Haley has answered selectively, focusing mostly on his age and that "rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him."

  • At her campaign's town halls in New Hampshire, she hasn't been taking public questions from voters — similar to her approach just before Iowa's caucuses.
  • Her campaign says that has nothing to do with Haley's acknowledged misstep in a town hall last month, when she didn't mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War.
  • The campaign noted that Haley stays long after her speeches "taking photos with each voter and answering all their questions."

But Haley's team has limited her interactions with non-local reporters. Her campaign didn't publicize all of her stops in New Hampshire this week, and only select reporters knew about stops in Littleton and Rochester.

  • The campaign says it publicized only events that could "accommodate a larger press corp," and focused on local media.

Haley also flew unannounced to South Carolina on Wednesday, acknowledging the trip only when she and her team were questioned about why she wasn't in New Hampshire just days before the primary.

  • Haley told WMUR-TV in New Hampshire that she went home to check on her parents. "I take care of them. They live with us. So I needed to go, my dad just got out of the hospital and needed to go and make sure he was OK. And he is," she said.

Between the lines: Trump has had a much lighter campaign schedule than Haley in New Hampshire, as he did in Iowa.

  • He left the state this week to attend his defamation trial in New York and for his mother-in-law's funeral.
  • Haley, trying to frame the primary as a tw0-person contest, declined to participate in two scheduled New Hampshire debates unless Trump joined her and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But she did attend a CNN town hall Thursday night.

The big picture: Haley has been careful in responding to Trump as she draws contrasts on style and some policies — particularly chiding him over the national debt — while trying not to engage with his increasingly vicious and race-baiting attacks.

  • Asked about Trump's promotion of a baseless theory that Haley was ineligible to be president despite being born in the U.S., Haley told CNN Thursday that she would "continue to focus on the things that people want to talk about, and not get into the name-calling."

After complaints from New Hampshire Republicans about her low-key campaigning in the week before the primary, Haley took questions from reporters Thursday morning and has announced six stops in New Hampshire on Friday — more than she's publicized for any day this week.

  • "Nikki Haley has spoken to more New Hampshire voters this week than Donald Trump has all year," Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas told Axios. "That's one of the reasons she has gone from 3% in the polls to within striking distance of Trump."

Reality check: A dominant Trump victory in New Hampshire could doom Haley's campaign, after she and aligned groups spent tens of millions of dollars in Iowa and New Hampshire.

  • DeSantis, who spent most of his resources in Iowa only to finish 30 points behind Trump, has been trying to revive his candidacy with an eye toward the Feb. 24 GOP primary in South Carolina.
  • DeSantis has been jabbing Haley for declining to debate him — and has made a point of publicly taking voters' questions at his New Hampshire town halls.
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