DERRY, N.H. — After entering the packed opera house here Tuesday night to a round of applause and a blaring rendition of the “Eye of the Tiger,” Nikki Haley had a question for the crowd.
“How many of you are here to hear me for the first time?” she wanted to know, launching her first town hall in a campaign swing here this week.
Hands shot up from much of the audience.
“Where have y’all been?” she asked, to laughter and applause.
Indeed, in New Hampshire, Haley’s support seems only to be growing. Polls show she has climbed into a convincing second place in the crucial first-in-the-nation primary state, lagging behind only former president Donald Trump. She was greeted Tuesday night by a crowd of a few hundred, and after two hours of her stump speech and audience questions, several voters said they were sold on the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor.
Haley also nabbed a big endorsement this week: Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch network’s political arm, plans to bolster her candidacy with targeted ads and insights gathered by its affiliated boots on the ground in New Hampshire and other key states.
Might she win the coveted endorsement of the Granite State’s publicity-courting governor as well?
Possibly, but not yet.
Governor Chris Sununu won’t announce the recipient of his presidential endorsement this week, a spokesperson said. Sununu has appeared with most of the big-name GOP candidates, but he won’t be on the presidential campaign trail this week either. He’s said he’s still weighing his options.
Haley had two more town halls planned for Wednesday in Meredith and Wolfeboro. She’s not the only candidate around: Other GOP candidates, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, are also stumping in New Hampshire this week.
And next week, on Wednesday, the top Republican candidates will meet for their fourth televised debate. Sununu has hinted he could hit the trail with his endorsee shortly thereafter. (When asked in early November about the timing of his pick, Sununu told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that an endorsement’s effectiveness hinges on the endorser’s timing and legwork. He said the period between Dec. 7 and Jan. 7 will be key.)
Sununu has all but narrowed his choices to Haley, Christie, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, he told reporters earlier this month, noting that he’s “pretty partial to governors.”
“The hard part for me is Ron, Nikki, and Chris are all great friends. … They’d all make great presidents,” Sununu told Puck political journalist Tara Palmeri this week on the Ringer podcast “Somebody’s Gotta Win.”
Palmeri said she suspects Sununu is leaning toward endorsing Haley. Without really addressing Palmeri’s conjecture, Sununu said Haley’s apparent rise in the race is real, and he said she may be well-positioned to perform well in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
“The opportunity for someone like Nikki Haley is that South Carolina comes right after New Hampshire, so if she were to do well here, she’d carry a lot of momentum back into her home state and really give Trump, I think, a run there,” he said.
Sununu said he’ll “probably” announce his endorsement within the next couple of weeks.
Analysts say Haley is well positioned to win Sununu’s support, though the governor has so far been coy about whom he plans to back.
“Are you ready to endorse me yet?” Haley asked Sununu during a campaign swing in Londonderry earlier this month, to laughter and applause from the crowd.
“Getting closer every day,” Sununu replied.
Haley and Christie are spending more time in New Hampshire than DeSantis, which could boost their standing in the eyes of Sununu, who has been a champion for the state’s cherished tradition of face-to-face retail politicking. And between Haley and Christie, Haley has a significant leg up in the polls. Sununu does share a notable tie with DeSantis: a former Sununu aide, David Abrams, is now a top DeSantis supporter, having left the presidential campaign over the summer to head an outside group supporting the Florida governor.
Dante Scala, a political science and international affairs professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the AFP endorsement is “a big deal” that could buttress Haley’s campaign and help her win over more conservative and libertarian GOP voters.
Scala said he suspects the AFP endorsement gives Sununu further confirmation that Haley is the candidate he should back as well. The choice has gotten easier, Scala said, since Haley is now both “the most plausible Trump alternative” and also “the one who is closest to Sununu’s own point of view about the direction of the party.”
Sununu won’t win over diehard supporters of Trump, who remains the GOP front-runner, but Sununu’s endorsement could move the needle just enough in New Hampshire to help narrow the field so the South Carolina primary looks like a two-person showdown between Trump and his top rival, Scala said.
“Even in the best-case scenario, he’s picking an underdog,” Scala added. “But he’s trying to pick the underdog with the best shot.”
On Tuesday night in Derry, voters responded enthusiastically to the former UN ambassador, applauding Haley’s policy positions on foreign and domestic issues. Ticking through her usual talking points, Haley emphasized the need to support Israel and Ukraine, ensure American children are reading at grade level, and cut federal spending to pre-COVID levels.
Robert Alamshah, a Vietnam veteran, nodded along enthusiastically as Haley spoke of the need to improve health benefits for those who have served in the military.
“She’s absolutely right: The VA needs to be overhauled,” Alamshah told the Globe after the town hall. “I pray for the right politician, because I’m desperate. We’re all desperate.”
Other voters pointed to Haley’s experience at the UN and in South Carolina. Haley would champion many of the policies they liked from the Trump administration, several voters said, without the former president’s combative style or legal baggage.
“We voted for Trump the last time,” said Christine Rheaume, 61, who lives in Litchfield, N.H. “Now I just wish he’d go away.”
Haley, Rheaume said, seems to be the most qualified of the Republican field, and, “I like what she stands for: the security of the country.... She has really good ideas with the border and the military.”
“And,” Rheaume added, beginning to snap and sway to the candidate’s playlist before, “she plays better music.”