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For NH Republican voters seeking alternative to Trump, attention turns to Haley

Haley addresses a crowd inside Hampshire Hills Athletic Club in Milford, N.H.
Josh Rogers
Nikki Haley addresses a crowd inside Hampshire Hills Athletic Club in Milford, N.H., Jan. 3, 2023.

The parking lot attendants were overmatched Tuesday night: Car after car, pouring into a country club parking lot in Rye to catch Nikki Haley.

“I am leaning strongly towards her,” said Amy Kennedy. “I want to see her in person, see how she does.”

Kennedy and her husband had driven to the Wentworth by the Sea golf course from their home in North Hampton because, like a lot of people that evening, they’re looking for an alternative to Donald Trump in the presidential primary.

“I think we need a younger, more dynamic government,” Kennedy said. “Because I think the group we have isn’t doing a good job.”

With the New Hampshire Primary now less than three weeks away, many voters are getting more serious in their decision-making, and Haley is one candidate drawing a lot of attention. Her most recent campaign stops in the state have been standing-room only, and voters at several of those events offered a range of reasons for why they are considering Haley, including her views on foreign policy, her relative youth, and her experience as United Nations ambassador. But one thing unites many of those weighing a vote for Haley: She offers a break from both the current president and his immediate predecessor.

"She's an alternative to Trump,” said Terry Mostrom of Hudson, who heard Haley address a crowd in a Concord theater last week. Mostrom added she’s open to any candidate “who is not Biden and not Trump, with a brain.”

In her stump speeches, Haley, 51, leans into this idea that she would bring a generational change to Washington, which she paints as too gray, too entrenched, and too disconnected.

Photo of Nikki Haley during her rally
Todd Bookman
Nikki Haley speaks during a rally in Rye, N.H. on Jan. 2, 2024.

“Congress has become the most privileged nursing home in the country,” she told the crowd in Rye Tuesday evening. “These are people making decisions on our national security. These are people making decisions on the future of our economy. It is nothing to play with. We need to know we’ve got people at the top of their game.”

Haley reached the top of South Carolina politics as governor, and then was appointed by Trump to be UN ambassador. Her pitch to voters these days focuses heavily on foreign policy and the need for America to be engaged in — and shape — global events, including supporting Ukraine and Israel in their ongoing wars.

That message sets her apart from most other Republicans in the presidential field, and it resonated with Sethaly Jones, an Exeter voter who switched her registration from Republican to independent over frustrations with the trajectory of the GOP.

“Totally unrealistic to be an isolationist,” Jones said. “Then you should just go live on an island somewhere by yourself. I mean, it is just not the way the world is.”

Increasingly, Haley is also ramping up attacks against Trump, calibrating them in a way that will satisfy anti-Trump voters, while not alienating those who still like the former president.

“You know I’m right: chaos follows him,” she said in Rye. “And we can’t be a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos, because we won’t survive it. You don’t fix Democrat chaos with Republican chaos.”

What Haley is describing is on the minds of plenty of New Hampshire voters, including Annie Sorrentino from New Boston, who attended Haley’s speech in Concord last week.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu campaigned Jan. 2, 2024 in Rye for Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley.
Todd Bookman
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu campaigned Jan. 2, 2024 in Rye for Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley.

“We’ve lost a lot of respect for what this country is supposed to be,” Sorrentino said. “And I don’t want that to be us. I don’t want that to be the way people look at us.”

Sorrentino says neither administration — Trump or Biden — accomplished much for the average American.

“I’m sick of the old-old.” she said. “I’m the middle class, and I’m tired of getting squashed.”

Sorrentino hasn’t committed to Haley, but she says she’s already crossed off Biden, Trump and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Other first-time GOP contenders, like Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are still campaigning in New Hampshire. The bigger the field, the less likely any one of these candidates defeats Trump here.

And so Haley — and her backers, including Gov. Chris Sununu — are working hard to make this race appear as a binary choice: Haley versus Trump.

“We’re narrowing this field down,” Sununu told the crowd at a recent Haley rally. “We’ve effectively made this a one-on-one race now.”

Bob Brackett has watched the Republican field winnow in recent months. He’s the kind of voter who relishes this time of year in New Hampshire. He says he’s impressed with Haley — what he described as her grasp of foreign affairs, in particular — and views her as the best candidate to beat Trump.

“The last two or three weeks is what makes a campaign,” said Brackett. “The fact that Gov. Sununu has come out in her support I think is crucial. I actually think there is going to be a ‘run for the roses’ for this thing.”

Who Republican voters give their rose to come Primary Day on Jan. 23 won’t finalize the party’s presidential nomination. But it will show if Haley’s momentum is real, or just the wishful thinking of independent and GOP voters who oppose Trump.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. He can be reached at tbookman@nhpr.org.