An ecstatic Nikki Haley strided onto the stage on Sunday night and asked the enthusiastic audience, “Can you hear that sound?” her voice filled with joy.
The sound you’re hearing is a two-person race.
A Republican primary showdown with Donald Trump was finally in the works for the former governor of South Carolina, who had been seeking the nomination for months.
Following the unexpected withdrawal of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign, she still has the burden of proving she can hold her own in a head-to-head contest with the former president—through Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire and beyond.
Opponents of Trump’s candidature have maintained for some time that he would be defeated in a Republican primary by a lone contender who could rally the entire party’s opposition against him.
A final test of the theory is on the horizon.
Among an electorate where moderate and independent voters play a significant role, Haley will never have a better chance than in New Hampshire to defeat Trump in a single contest and prove she can wage a countrywide challenge against him. A victory, or very close runner-up spot, will be vital to the former South Carolina governor’s capacity to run through her home state’s primary next month and into the Super Tuesday major-state primaries at the beginning of March.
“This race is between two individuals. “That’s exactly what we were hoping for,” Haley told Dana Bash of HEADLINESFOREVER while out campaigning on Sunday, just moments after DeSantis announced his withdrawal.
On Tuesday, though, Haley will have to answer an existential question about her candidature. Is there really no one in the GOP who can challenge the front-runner, the former president, who has become incredibly popular among GOP base supporters due to his transformation of his unparalleled legal crisis into a rallying cry? In the past week, three of the former president’s defeated opponents—DeSantis, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—have embraced Trump, suggesting that the Republican establishment is rallying around him rather than her. Saturday night at a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, Trump made the comment, “They’re all coming with us,” with a tone of delight.
However, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu has been the leading voice in suggesting that a head-to-head struggle might put Trump in jeopardy and lead to a drawn-out battle for delegates. On Sunday night, while rallying for Haley in Exeter, the well-liked Republican appeared elated that his dream was coming true.
“Just a short time ago, there were thirteen contenders, and now there are only two,” he shouted at the audience. They were all but eliminated when Nikki Haley showed up and proved them wrong. The Republicans have been waiting for an opportunity to unite for a long time. Even while Haley has been cautious in criticising Trump for fear of alienating party members who favour him, Sununu’s comments highlighted how her contest has become a protracted struggle for the GOP’s soul. Sununu, on the other hand, has been playing down Haley’s prospects as of late, saying that all she needs to do to win states on Super Tuesday.
Haley feels a surge of energy
Essentially, Haley has just one full day to convince New Hampshire voters that she’s a serious contender in a one-on-one matchup with Trump before the polls open in the Granite State due to the lateness of DeSantis’s resignation. She wasted no time in trying to make the most of her elevated position by casting herself as the antidote to the “chaos” (her phrase for Trump’s criminal issues, impeachments, and turbulent first term) and the far safer choice to defeat Joe Biden in November’s general election.
The announcement energised Haley and her audience. Even if her campaign had hoped that former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s departure would unite the anti-Trump vote in New Hampshire, her recent days have been anything from smooth. Last week, she placed third in the Iowa caucuses, which put a damper on the story of her campaign’s momentum. Trump has an 11-point lead against Haley in the state, according to a Sunday HEADLINESFOREVER poll. Having DeSantis remain in until Wednesday might have been beneficial to her, if anything. Since the supporters of the Florida governor are probably a better match for Trump’s coalition, his slim lead in the HEADLINESFOREVER survey was widened by thirteen points after his vote share was re-allocated according to respondents’ second preferences.
The notoriously unpredictable New Hampshire primary might provide Haley with the unexpected victory she needs, and Sununu’s elation could be justified by the GOP field’s late-in-the-race thinning.
While most polls show a solid Trump lead, a complication in New Hampshire is that no one can be sure how many undeclared voters – the name for independents in the Granite State – will show up on Election Day to vote in the GOP primary. John McCain, a senator from Arizona, shocked George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primary thanks to an unusually high number of undeclared voters. On the flip side, New Hampshire has been known to throw Democrats for a loop: in 2008, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the state just days after Barack Obama lost the Iowa caucuses, delaying Obama’s nomination drive by months.
“The New Hampshire polling is all over the place – one reason – and that is the proportion of the undeclared voters that can vote in the Republican primary,” Republican pollster Whit Ayers said in a briefing last week at the Brookings Institution. “Determining their share of the total turnout is extremely challenging.”