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Nikki Haley tries to draw New Hampshire’s independents without alienating voters who backed Trump

Haley’s best shot at shaking Trump’s grip on the Republican nomination rests with her ability to attract New Hampshire’s independent voters

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, meets with Curtis and Christina Shea during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner in Derry, N.H., Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, center, meets with Curtis and Christina Shea during a campaign stop at Mary Ann's Diner in Derry, N.H., Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.Matt Rourke (AP)

Richard Anderson drove through a snowstorm last week to see his preferred candidate in New Hampshire’s Republican primary. But he’s not sure how far he’ll go to support her if she wins the nomination.

Anderson, a 73-year-old independent voter from Jackson, liked what he heard from Nikki Haley at the Mount Washington Hotel. But he disagrees with the former U.N. ambassador’s plan to pardon former President Donald Trump if he is convicted of any of the crimes he’s been charged with.

“That bothers me,” he said. “I’ll still vote for her in the primary, but I’ll wait to see if she’s still saying that in the general election.”

Haley’s best shot at shaking Trump’s grip on the Republican nomination rests with her ability to attract New Hampshire’s independent voters — including some who might not stick with her in November — without alienating too many conservatives. Other Republicans have hit the right balance here, notably John McCain in two GOP primary victories. But those wins came long before Trump’s rise in politics and the Republicans’ rightward shifts both in the state and nationally.

“It’s a very difficult needle to thread,” said Nathan Shrader, an associate professor of politics at New England College, “because if she makes too much of an overt play for the independent voters, that could be a turnoff for some of the Republicans who we know in the Trump era are more conservative than they might have been a generation ago.”

Democrats can’t vote in the GOP primary, but voters unaffiliated with a party — who make up nearly 40% of registered voters in New Hampshire — can. That makes them a key target, though they aren’t a monolith.

A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released Sunday found that a majority of registered Republicans likely to vote in the primary — 67% — said they planned to vote for Trump. But a majority of those registered as undeclared — 58% — said they support Haley.

The poll, taken Tuesday through Friday, also found more registered Republicans in the state view Haley unfavorably (47%) than favorably (31%). Trump, meanwhile is viewed favorably by 76% of registered Republicans and unfavorably by just 16%.

Haley was viewed favorably by 42% of people who have registered themselves as undeclared, while 32% viewed her unfavorably. Just 34% of the same group, by contrast, views Trump favorably, compared with 59% unfavorably.

Some Haley supporters interviewed at her events are left-leaning voters who have little ideological overlap with Haley but are intent on stopping Trump. Others lean Republican and agree with her policies.

Corinne Pullen is a blend of both. Pullen, a retired 68-year-old nurse from Canterbury, said she’s impressed with Haley’s “strict and strong” foreign policies and her plans to decrease federal spending. She considers Trump a “narcissistic braggadocio buffoon.”

“When I compare these two candidates, it is a no-brainer who I would feel comfortable and safe having in the White House,” she said.

Trump has turned that crossover appeal into an attack line, suggesting that Haley is being propped up by “radical left Democrats.” The former president’s campaign argues Haley will struggle with conservatives in closed primaries like that of her home-state South Carolina, where the Feb. 24 primary is the next big matchup for her and Trump.

“Her entire focus at this point in time ... has been about turning out Democrats and behavioral Democrats to hijack the Republican primary in New Hampshire,” Trump senior advisor Chris LaCivita told reporters this month.

As if to underscore that point, Trump on Saturday arranged for South Carolina’s current governor, lieutenant governor, and several other elected leaders to come to New Hampshire to campaign with him. The day before, he won a rousing endorsement from South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, whom Haley appointed to the Senate when she was governor.

Haley, however, dismissed that move.

“I won South Carolina twice as governor,” she said recently. “I think I know what favorable territory is in South Carolina. We are going to South Carolina. We’re going to be strong in South Carolina.” She added: “The road is never going to stop here in New Hampshire, that’s always been the plan.”

Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, is skeptical that Haley can pull together a strong and diverse enough coalition to top Trump in Tuesday’s primary. Even if she did, “how do you duplicate that elsewhere?” he asked. “The answer is, you don’t. I don’t think you can pull off that magic trick in state after state.”

Unlike McCain, who openly appealed to “Republicans, independents, Democrats, Libertarians, vegetarians, all of them,” Haley doesn’t mention independents in her stump speech. But the super PAC backing her is filling its mailboxes with fliers citing her endorsement from New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Trump critic, and her plans on the economy and debt reduction.

Haley described herself to reporters Thursday as “a conservative that knows how to talk to moderates and independents and not make them feel bad, but make them feel included.”

At the same time, she pushed back against criticism from Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that she isn’t conservative enough.

“Show me where I’m moderate, because I’m not,” she said.

That didn’t stop Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a moderate Republican who voted for Biden in 2020, from endorsing her on Saturday and urging New Hampshire voters to “showcase their deep-rooted independent streak.” And it doesn’t bother independent voter Kristen Mansharamani, who described herself as “further left” than Haley on abortion, education and other issues but said she believes Haley would be a unifying leader.

“I told my 12-year-old son that I am looking for the person who I think is going to get rid of some of the standstill and the polarization in politics and I think she can do that better than anyone else out there right now,” said Mansharamani, 48, of Lincoln.

In Iowa, Haley was the top candidate for the most anti-Trump Republicans, including those who said the former president did something illegal in one of the pending criminal cases against him, according to data from AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of likely Iowa voters before they entered the caucuses.. Two-thirds of Haley’s caucusgoers said they would not ultimately vote for Trump in the general election.

In New Hampshire, some anti-Trump independents supporting Haley say they aren’t sure whether they’d back her in a general election either.

Amy Watson, a 59-year-old oral surgeon from Hollis, praised Haley’s tenure as U.N. ambassador and governor but said Haley’s views on environmental issues may be a dealbreaker in November.

“As things transpire, I think I’m going to consider what she has to say,” she said. “I’m very much concerned about global warming, so that’s one area where she may lose me.”

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