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Looking to catch 'lightning in a bottle,' Nikki Haley stumps in Vermont

A woman holds a microphone and gestures while speaking in front of a line of flags
Chuck Burton
Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a Republican campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, March 2, 2024. Haley was in Vermont on Sunday, March 3.

About 500 Vermonters packed into a hotel conference room in South Burlington on Sunday afternoon to hear from the last notable challenger for the Republican presidential nomination who is not Donald Trump.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley drew a crowd of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, some of whom said they are as terrified by the prospect of a second Trump presidency as they are by another four years of President Joe Biden.

“My concerns are that the Republican Party will be destroyed with Trump,” said Rachel Lamoureux, a self-described conservative. “And I think it will take many, many years to get rebuilt. So that’s my concern, which means being sensible and working on both sides.”

Sunday’s “Rally for Nikki Haley” at the DoubleTree hotel in South Burlington was the first political event that Linda Camire has ever attended.

“She got me out,” Camire said.

For Camire, an Independent who leans Republican, Haley represents a candidate who possesses the “sanity” she thinks Trump lacks, and the energy and acuity she says Biden has lost.

“From Trump, I don’t get any kind of rational answers,” she said. “And from Biden, though I’m aligned with a lot of his opinions, I do have a problem with his age.”

Haley’s brief stop in the Green Mountain State comes two days before Vermont and 14 other states hold their primary votes on Super Tuesday — what may be the most consequential day in the presidential primary calendar. Trump has already secured 244 primary delegates to Haley’s 24. And while the path for the former ambassador to the United Nations is by all accounts narrow, Republican Gov. Phil Scott urged Vermonters to send a message from the ballot box on Tuesday.

Man and woman hug on stage while people in foreground hold posters and phones.
Peter Hirshfeld
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott and Nikki Haley embrace after Scott introduces her to the crowd at a rally held at the DoubleTree in South Burlington on Sunday, March 3, 2024.

“In my opinion, there’s no one less equipped, no one more incapable of healing the huge divide we have in this country than Donald Trump. He’s made a career of throwing fuel on the fire of hate and anger,” Scott said in a speech before introducing Haley to the stage. “ So whether you’re a Republican, or one of the many Independents, moderates and Democrats who’ve supported me over the years, don’t sit this primary out. If you want to help stop Donald Trump, please, please show up on Tuesday.”

Matt Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College who attended Sunday’s rally, said there’s a reason Haley used limited campaign resources to visit a small state with so few delegates up for grabs.

“I think she figures that Vermont is as good a chance of winning a state, or at least having a strong performance on Super Tuesday, as anywhere,” Dickinson said. “That’s not to say she’s going to win, but it has the earmarks of a Haley state.”

An open primary, lack of a competitive race on the Democratic side, and a comparatively high percentage of voters who identify as Independent, according to Dickinson, are in Haley’s favor heading into Tuesday.

“She’s hoping to catch lightning in a bottle here, and the size of this crowd suggests she has some support,” he said. “Where else would she go on Super Tuesday that she has a better chance than Vermont?”

Man in cameo jacket wearing a hat holds a sign and salutes.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Brandon resident Wyatt Waterman, holding a homemade Nikki Haley sign, says his vote for Haley in Tuesday’s primary will be a vote against Donald Trump.

Haley’s chances Tuesday hinge on turnout by Democrats such as Brandon resident Wyatt Waterman. Waterman, who held a Nikki Haley sign he made himself before the rally, said he’s willing to support a candidate whose ideology veers substantially from his in a primary, so long as that vote has the potential to undermine Trump’s electoral success.

“I’ve never seen democracy threatened by fascism so much in my entire life,” Waterman said. “This is not how I want to leave it for the generations following us, so I’m taking what time and resources I have to stand up to this tyranny.”

Williston residents Avery Elowson and Jenny Norbut both lean Democratic but are thinking about crossing over in Tuesday’s primary.

Two women stand in a doorway holding a red sign.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Jenny Norbut, left, and Avery Elowson, are Democratic-leaning voters who are concerned about President Joe Biden’s age.

Norbut said if Trump and Biden end up on the general election ballot in November, there’s no question who she’ll be voting for.

“I would vote for Biden,” she said. “That would not even be a question in my mind at that point.”

But Norbut said Biden isn’t an exciting pick for her. And in Haley, she said she sees someone who has the potential to reenergize an American electorate disillusioned by the last eight years.

“I think that Biden’s kind of getting old, so we just wanted to see what else is out there for an option, and we don’t want it to be Trump,” she said.

Elowson, 20, will be casting her first presidential primary vote ever on Tuesday. She said she’s concerned about Haley’s stance on abortion rights, but she also has reservations about the incumbent Democratic ticket.

“I am worried about his age,” she said. “I am not necessarily a huge fan of [Vice President] Kamala [Harris], and I think there could be a better choice as a Democrat ... If he’s not willing to step down in the current state of his age, we’ll see what happens.”

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.