Nikki Haley ratchets up her attacks on Donald Trump

“I don’t talk about opponents. I never have. I don’t think you want to hear it,” Haley said to an overflowing crowd in a country western-themed bar near New Hampshire’s seacoast on Wednesday.

But “we are less than three weeks out” from the first-in-the-nation primary, Haley said. A pro-Trump super PAC is running an ad here accusing the former South Carolina governor of flip-flopping on her home state’s gas tax. And, as Haley put it, “none of it’s true.”

Haley has spent most of her campaign walking a fine line when it comes to Trump, alternating between opposing and praising him as she aims to appeal to both “Never Trump” Republicans and those who are open to the idea of voting for him again.

But with her latest broadsides against Trump, Haley is opening a new front in a primary long defined by lower-polling rivals’ reluctance to engage directly with the former president. And she’s doing so at a crucial moment in New Hampshire, where large numbers of more moderate Republicans and independents who can vote in the GOP primary are just starting to tune in.

“She wants to appeal to the people who haven’t made a decision yet … and so she’s showing strength,” said longtime New Hampshire GOP strategist Dave Carney, who is not affiliated with a candidate in the presidential race. “I don’t know if it’s too late.”

And Trump is testing her willingness to go on the attack. Late Wednesday, a source close to the Trump campaign and granted anonymity to speak freely
confirmed a New York Times report
that the Trump campaign is starting to run ads in New Hampshire attacking Haley on border issues.

Haley has a long history of switching positions on Trump. She opposed his 2016 bid for the Republican nomination and then went on to work in his administration as U.N. ambassador. She condemned Trump in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot, but later declared that conservatives “need him” in the GOP. She vowed not to run against him in 2024, and then did.

And for much of her campaign, Haley has sought to have it both ways on Trump, calling him the “right president at the right time,” while also saying “chaos follows him” and the country “won’t survive” another four years of it.

But the stakes are changing for Haley,
who, with the support of the state’s popular governor, Chris Sununu, has been rising in recent polls in New Hampshire
. And Trump and his allies have taken notice. The pro-Trump super PAC MAGA Inc. launched an ad in the Granite State in mid-December accusing Haley of flip-flopping on her support for a gas tax as governor of South Carolina by splicing together clips from various speeches she gave. “New Hampshire can’t afford Nikki ‘High Tax’ Haley,” the narrator says in the spot that the PAC has put more than $2 million behind, according to the ad tracking firm AdImpact.

At first, Haley brushed the attack aside in a post on X as Trump “getting nervous.” But as the ad kept airing, Haley has started to address it, unprompted, on the stump — accusing Trump and his allies of spreading falsehoods about her stance on the tax in four separate appearances in New Hampshire over two days.

“I have seen the commercials you see. I’ve seen the little temper tantrums that he’s thrown,” Haley told a crowd of several hundred people packed into a sports bar in Londonderry on Wednesday. “And let me tell you this: There’s not one bit of it that’s truthful. I never once signed or would have signed a tax increase in South Carolina.”

As governor,
Haley proposed a gas-tax increase
to help fix the state’s roads, coupled with an income-tax cut, which she acknowledged in Milford on Wednesday night. But the plan was never approved, and Haley pledged to veto a standalone gas tax increase.

“If he wants to talk about raising taxes,” Haley said, “in 2018 he proposed on all of us a 25 cent gas tax increase.”

She didn’t stop there, going on to blast Trump’s handling of the economy — a major selling point of Trump’s campaign and a reason voters in New Hampshire often mention for continuing to support him.

“Everybody talks about how good the economy was under Trump. And it was good, right? But at what cost,” Haley said. “We had $8 trillion dollars in debt just in four years. Our kids will never forgive us for that.”

Haley’s incremental increase in rhetoric against Trump has garnered outsize attention from the media and, more importantly for the candidate, from voters looking to block him from securing the nomination for a third time.

But in a primary in which Chris Christie was long the lone candidate speaking directly against Trump, Haley’s shots at the former president are nowhere near as harsh as the former New Jersey governor’s — a difference that’s notable because Haley is, in part, attempting to peel moderate Republicans and independents away from Christie.

Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair who is helping to lead Christie’s campaign in the state, said Haley’s offensive “may well be too little and too late.”

At Haley’s midafternoon meet-and-greet in Londonderry on Wednesday, Paul Keenliside, an independent voter from Salem who is leaning toward voting for the former South Carolina governor, said it’s “encouraging to hear her respond” to the ad.

But for Keenliside and other voters crammed into the strip mall sports bar, Haley’s ramp-up may not go far enough — not when she says she would pardon Trump and refuses to rule out being his running mate.

“I would be looking for a lot more, in terms of seeing her commit to not running as [Trump’s] VP,” Keenliside said. “That’s an issue for me.”

Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.

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