Kingston, N.H. — I’m standing in the back of the Saddle Up Saloon in this small town in southern New Hampshire, watching Nikki Haley do everything she’s not supposed to do.
Town hall-style event. Hundreds of voters in attendance. And she’s prattling on about policy.
It takes her 45 minutes to approach the big, blond-mopped elephant in the room.
And even then, she tiptoes around him.
Donald Trump was “the right president at the right time.” She agrees “with a lot of his policies.” It’s just that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.”
This pablum can’t possibly be enough to loosen Trump’s grip on the Republican Party.
Can’t possibly be enough to give Haley a shot in the GOP presidential primary.
Or can it?
For months now, Never Trumpers and righteous newspaper columnists have demanded that Trump’s Republican opponents engage in full frontal assaults on the former president. It’s a moral necessity, they’ve argued; Trump is a grievous threat to democracy.
And it’s a political necessity, too. How can you possibly beat the prohibitive favorite if you won’t confront him?
Caution, it’s true, has not worked for everyone.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, loath to attack the front-runner and alienate his supporters, presented himself as a sort of Trump-without-the-baggage in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, hoping that would appeal to the evangelicals who are such an important part of the electorate in the Hawkeye State.
Instead he flopped, finishing a distant second on Monday. And it’s hard to see a way forward for his campaign.
Haley, though, seems to be having success with her own version of the strategy.
Polls for Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary are all over the place. But some suggest the former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador is closing in on Trump.
Haley, to be clear, is still a longshot. She trails Trump by wide margins in national polls. And if the former president manages to rout her in New Hampshire, the race will effectively be over.
But if she can pull off a near-victory in the primary here — or better yet, an upset — she could alter the dynamics of the race.
Tom Rath, a New Hampshire politico who served as a senior adviser to five Republican presidential candidates, says a Haley win in the Granite State would be a “cataclysm” that opens up “genuine competition” in the contest.
And even if she falls short, she could still wind up as Trump’s pick for vice president. Going easy on the frontrunner is more than a clever strategy for securing the nomination; it’s a path to the consolation prize.
Serving as Trump’s No. 2 could leave Haley in a good position to contend for the presidency in 2028 and ease the party into a new phase: a Republican politics streaked with Trumpian populism, but a bit softer at the edges.
This is hardly the definitive break from Trumpism that much of the country has fantasized about.
But a definitive break was always just that: a fantasy.
The Christie delusion
Last month I drove to Bedford, about 20 minutes north of the Massachusetts border, to get a close look at the man who was then Haley’s chief rival for the anti-Trump vote: former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Charcoal suit, blue tie. Blunt talk.
Once a Trump ally, he’d turned into a sharp critic. And he’d built his entire campaign around the argument that Trump is unfit to lead.
Recent events had given him new fodder.
Just a few days prior, at a New Hampshire rally, Trump had declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” drawing comparisons to Hitler.
Christie pushed back hard.
“This is not accidental,” he said at the Bedford town hall. “This is not a slip of the tongue. This is a dog whistle.”
And he was the only candidate in the primary, he said, who had the guts to call it out.
DeSantis had labeled Trump’s comments a “tactical mistake” — “as if he was following Waze on his car,” Christie said, “and he ‘tactically’ made the wrong turn.” And Haley hadn’t said anything at all. (The next day, she’d make her own restrained critique, saying Trump’s statement was “not constructive” but calling for the reinstatement of the former president’s “Remain in Mexico” policy among other tough-on-illegal-immigration policies.)
This pandering to the former president and his sympathizers didn’t meet the moment, Christie suggested.
“I’m fighting,” he said, “for the soul of our country.”
It was a stirring sentiment.
It was also a Democratic talking point, lifted from Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign against Trump.
While it seemed to resonate with many of those who had come out to see him, the crowd was small.
Much smaller than the throng Trump had stood before when he sounded his dog whistle.
And the former president — however troubling his language — was more in tune with the GOP base than his rival.
In one recent poll of New Hampshire Republican primary voters, respondents ranked immigration right alongside the economy as their biggest concerns.
And those who named immigration as their top issue preferred Trump over the other GOP candidates by wide margins.
Christie barely registered with this cohort. His overall support had plateaued.
And two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, the candidate who’d made the boldest charge at the front-runner — who’d mounted the most stirring defense of democracy — dropped out.
Polls suggest much of Christie’s support will accrue to Haley. She is the most viable alternative to Trump.
But her campaign — and the deep-pocketed groups aiding it — have made no pretense about Saving The Republic.
They’re quite open about what they’re after: power.
‘A new chapter’
Greg Moore is sitting behind his desk in a Manchester office park.
Blue blazer. Brown khakis. Affable.
He’s the New Hampshire state director for Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative group backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch family.
Before this election cycle, the organization had never endorsed a candidate in a presidential primary. But in November, it threw its considerable resources behind Haley.
The move came nearly a year after the group pledged to back someone other than Trump in the Republican contest, saying it would support a candidate “who represents a new chapter.”
Nothing personal, Moore says. Trump’s antics don’t really bother him.
“I’ve been around this political business long enough to know that there’s gotta be some theatrics and pageantry,” he says.
The problem is that Trump’s polarizing pronouncements have become a drag on the conservative cause — making it harder for Republicans to win down-ballot.
Nowhere is that more evident than New Hampshire.
“A good chunk of our federal delegation, historically, has been Republican,” Moore says. But “since Trump was the nominee in 2016, Republicans have not had a single federal representative in Washington — 0 for 11 in elections.”
And if you don’t control Congress, you can’t make policy.
This is no crusade for the soul of America. It’s a campaign to cut taxes and slash regulation. And Americans for Prosperity Action is making a substantial investment in the effort.
It has spent millions on ads and mailers. It’s been knocking on thousands of doors. And it’s offering up a carefully calibrated message.
As Christie’s ill-fated campaign showed, there’s not much of a market among the Republican primary electorate for a strident anti-Trump message.
“One of the things we’ve found is, even people who want to go in a different direction from Trump — a good chunk of them don’t want to throw out the four years that he was in office,” Moore says. “If you just come along and attack him, you’re basically attacking those four years — four years that a lot of Republican primary voters were pretty happy with.”
Instead, Americans for Prosperity Action is arguing that Haley would be the stronger candidate against Biden.
The more viable vehicle for conservative power.
On a cool, dry afternoon last week, Justin Wilson, a grassroots engagement director with the group, carried that message into a well-to-do slice of north Manchester.
As always, he encountered Trump supporters.
At one door, teacher Amanda Scalingi said she likes that the former president “is not bought and paid for” and would protect schoolchildren against the creep of leftist narratives into the classroom.
But Wilson did his best to plant doubts.
“Does the electability of Donald Trump concern you at all?” he asked. “Things coming out, statements that he’s been making . . . the polling numbers?”
Just down the block, where Wilson found a voter leaning toward Haley, it was a matter of reinforcement. Haley was “a lot more electable than Donald Trump,” he said, “less controversial.”
“Yes,” the voter replied. “Yes.”
To the post-Trump future
When Haley launches into her stump speech at the Saddle Up Saloon, it feels a little flat. She doesn’t have the charisma of a Trump or a Christie.
And occasionally, she offers up an odd turn of phrase. When she is president, she says at one point, “we will finally acknowledge the cancer that is mental health.”
But something curious happens over the course of her lengthy speech.
Between the talk of bringing plane and car manufacturing to South Carolina when she was governor, the dissection of childhood literacy rates (”Do you know right now in America only 31 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading?”), and the discussion of China’s research into “neuro-strike” mind control weapons (yes, that’s a real thing), she creates an impression of wide-ranging competence.
She sprinkles in some nice personal touches, too — talking about her husband’s struggle to adjust to life after combat, for instance.
And while she doesn’t come out and say that these qualities set her apart from Trump, the contrast is pretty evident.
Mix in some red-meat appeals to conservatives — a line about keeping biological boys out of girls’ sports, a declaration that America is not racist — and, for some voters, you get a tempting alternative.
Will it be enough to win the Republican nomination?
Trump has a powerful hold on the conservative imagination. And as the primaries shift out of moderate New Hampshire to the more conservative South and West, he’ll be tough to beat.
But the job of the non-Trump candidate this election cycle was to position herself for an outside shot at a major upset.
Haley has done that.
And even if she doesn’t succeed, she may have pointed to a way out of the Trump years — four or eight or 10 years from now.
Not a firm rebuke but a careful pivot.