For those who have been waiting impatiently for the Republican presidential nomination race to show some real signs of life, take heed.
Look at New Hampshire, which will hold the first-in-the-nation Republican primary early next year. For months, the Granite State race for second place has been in flux, with no candidate emerging as a sustained and plausible challenger to front-runner Donald Trump.
In part, that’s because the primary is still a long way away, politically speaking. New Hampshire voters are renowned for the attention they pay to primary politics, but even for them, focusing intently while summer weather still lingers is too much to expect.
In part it’s because of the political ineptitude of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who was the subject of so much early interest. Until, that is, Republicans outside of Florida got a closer look at the would-be wizard of culture warfare — and discovered the man behind the curtain was not a prepossessing political talent but rather was a petty, clumsy, and off-putting politician.
DeSantis’s New Hampshire moment now looks to be over. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador, has now passed him and moved into second place, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA TODAY poll that puts her at 19 percent, with DeSantis back at 10 percent. In early summer, DeSantis was tied with Trump in some New Hampshire polling.
Although the poll didn’t probe the reason for Haley’s surge, voters have obviously been impressed by her two strong GOP debate performances, during which she thoroughly schooled Trump epigone Vivek Ramaswamy and demonstrated to one and all that she won’t back down or be drowned out or talked over.
A poll like this becomes a cue for other voters looking for a Trump alternative. Of course, it’s too early to declare that Haley has locked up the role of principal challenger to Trump. But she has several things going for her. One is foreign-policy experience. Her status as the only woman in the race helps her stand out, particularly given her qualifications. And she’s winning the Palmetto State’s intramural battle, outpolling Senator Tim Scott both in New Hampshire and in their shared home state of South Carolina.
Finally, in New Hampshire she may well be the beneficiary of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s blistering attacks on Trump for violating his oath to the US Constitution by trying to subvert the results of the last presidential election. When one candidate attacks another in a race, a third candidate often benefits. In that way, Republicans who come to recognize the legitimacy of Christie’s scathing critique of Trump but are put off by his aggressiveness may migrate to Haley.
The Globe poll is obviously also good news for Trump, who commands some 49 percent of Republican support. Better news yet for the former president: 84 percent of Trump fans say their support for him is firm.
Maybe. Yet there’s plenty of slip between the cup and the lip on sentiments such as that. After all, to support Trump again, Republican primary voters have to continue to believe a number of things that simply aren’t true and so won’t be borne out.
On prosecutions, they have to believe, against the facts, that his four separate sets of criminal indictments have been ordered by President Biden, as he alleges, or are part of some deep state effort to get Trump. Even though the charges in Fulton County, Ga., and Manhattan, N.Y., are state prosecutions.
Oh yes, and that civil suit ruling that he sexually abused writer E. Jean Carroll is also part of a shadowy stop-Trump effort as well. And ditto the civil suit ruling by Judge Arthur Engoron that Trump committed fraud by regularly and dramatically overvaluing his real estate holdings.
Not to view him as a massive liar requires one to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, an evidence-free claim that has now been widely debunked.
This week, meanwhile, retired four-star Marine general John Kelly, Trump’s longest-serving chief of staff, confirmed in a statement to CNN’s Jake Tapper several previously anonymously attributed accounts of Trump having denigrated American servicemen killed or injured in war. Kelly is another in a long list of former Trump officials or appointees who have said devastating things about their former boss.
None of the above has yet been weaponized politically in the form of attack ads. At some point, it almost inevitably will be.
Now, don’t expect Trump backers to adopt a negative view of the man they consider their champion. There’s a face-saving fallback position, however: Unfair as his supporters consider it all to be, Trump is at the center of too many controversies to succeed in 2024.
But that’s a judgment that voters come to slowly — and only after a clear alternative has emerged.
In New Hampshire, Haley can now make a strong claim to being that alternative.