Nikki Haley and her keys to victory ahead of the New Hampshire primary


ROCHESTER, N.H. –  Retired firefighter Steven Lesniak was the first person in line for Nikki Haley’s event.

Lesniak considers himself a Democrat. But this Tuesday, the 59-year-old, undeclared voter from Dover, New Hampshire, plans to cast a ballot in the first-in-the-nation state’s Republican presidential primary.

The Marine Corps veteran sees former President Donald Trump as a danger, yet he’s lost confidence in President Joe Biden.

Haley carries herself like a leader, Lesniak said at the former South Carolina governor’s Rochester event. “She seems like she could keep her cool, especially when people like Trump throw stuff at her, and also, she seems to have the answers.”

Registered independents who are eligible to vote in the Jan. 23 primary have been coming out in droves to see Haley speak over the past week at events in New Hampshire. They make up a critical voting bloc that Haley has to turn out in the Tuesday primary if she is to have any hope of wrestling the GOP nomination away from Trump. 

The former president has a double-digit lead in nearly every public opinion poll in New Hampshire, and surveys taken over the past few days show him pulling farther and farther ahead. 

Haley’s emphasis on meet and greets and retail stops is proving to be no match for Trump’s primetime events. He spent the first half-hour of a Saturday evening rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, deriding her before a crowd of several thousand.

Trump has launched a litany of attacks on Haley in recent days in an effort to undercut her conservative credentials. He has zeroed in on her support in New Hampshire among a relatively small group of party-switching Democrats and a significantly larger universe of independents, who can vote in either party’s presidential primary.

Independents were supporting Haley over Trump by a healthy margin, 49% to 41%, in Suffolk University’s daily tracking poll with The Boston Globe and NBC-10 that was released on Sunday.

Democrats must vote in their own primary on Tuesday unless they previously dropped their party affiliation. The deadline for New Hampshire residents to make that change was months ago on Oct. 6.

As of Friday, unaffiliated voters far outnumbered Republicans and Democrats in New Hampshire. The state had 267,768 registered Republicans, 261,254 registered Democrats, and 344,335 undeclared voters. 

Those numbers could shift after the vote is tallied: New Hampshire also allows same-day registration for U.S. citizens over the age of 18 who can prove their residency.

Push independent voters to turn out on Tuesday

A significant unknown for Haley leading into the Tuesday primary is how many of her new supporters are motivated to cast ballots.

New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan’s office said Friday that the state is predicting a turnout of 322,000 people in the GOP primary.

A grassroots group that is aligned with Haley, the conservative Americans for Prosperity, says its data partner is projecting an even higher turnout of 330,000 to 340,000 voters in the contest, which had essentially turned into a battle between Haley and Trump before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis exited the presidential race.

More than half of Haley’s expected voters in New Hampshire say their support for her is a form of protest against Trump. The percentage of New Hampshire voters who described their views that way jumped last week from 37% to 55% as the Republican presidential candidates hit the campaign trail.

By comparison, upward of 90% of Trump’s supporters say they are supporting him to stop Haley.

Anti-Trump voter Lesniak, the undeclared voter who attended Haley’s event in Rochester at an American Legion, says he will be there on Tuesday.

“Hopefully there’s a lot more people like me. I know if I vote in a primary, and somebody ekes him out and gets the nomination, he won’t be in office and won’t be able to win,” Lesniak said.

Win over former Christie supporters

When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie left the race in early January, he was caught on a hot mic predicting that Haley would “get smoked” in New Hampshire. 

Christie had been griping for weeks that Haley had not come out swinging against Trump. And when he suddenly exited the competition, he did not endorse her.

His departure from the race should have helped Haley, yet in the last week, Trump managed to expand his lead.

“She needs to consolidate the support of people who aren’t supporting the former president,” Americans for Prosperity state director Greg Moore said of Haley’s precarious position.

Haley has gone in harder against Trump since she came in third place in Iowa. She and Trump have been volleying attacks back and forth ever since.

After the ex-president, who is 77, confused her with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at his Concord rally, Haley questioned his mental competency.

“When you’re dealing with the pressures of the presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do this. We can’t,” Haley said at a campaign stop in Keene, New Hampshire. 

Haley turned 52 on Saturday.

The former United Nations ambassador is also taking aim at Trump’s foreign policy chops. She accused him on Saturday of having a “bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin and launched a three-minute ad featuring Cindy Warmbier, whose son Otto was detained by North Korea during Trump’s presidency. Otto was in a coma at the time of his release. 

He passed away several days later.

Keep voters over 50 from defecting to Trump

Undecided voter Mark Hudson, 62, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said he came to see Haley speak in Rochester because he wanted to hear her about her plans to keep Social Security afloat. 

He’s a former Trump voter who said he was torn between Haley and DeSantis, who has since quit the race, in the upcoming election.

“I did vote for Trump last time, but I do think it’s time for change in the White House, and it’s time for a change in the party,” Hudson said. “I do think we need to look for younger, fresher ideas to move us forward.”

Hudson said he does not see how Trump, who would be term-limited, will be able to get the job done in four years. He’s also convinced by Haley’s argument that America needs a younger president.

Haley’s support has held steady across surveys among likely voters between the ages of 50 and 64. And she has managed to grow her support in the last week among expected Republican primary voters aged 65 and older, in spite of Trump’s claims that her plan to raise the retirement age for younger voters would end Social Security for New Hampshire’s seniors.

More than 20% of New Hampshire residents are over the age of 65. 

Find a way to sway ‘staunch conservatives’

Haley has also brushed back attacks from Trump and his campaign in recent days on immigration – he says she opposes a border wall; she says a wall alone will not fix America’s problems – and her support as South Carolina governor for a possible increase in the state’s gas tax. 

She proposed raising the fuel charge, at the time, in exchange for a decrease in the state’s income tax.

Trump and his campaign have jumped on the policies to bolster their argument that Haley would do the bidding of Democrats if she’s elected.

Jerry Chauvette, a 66-year-old small business owner who attended Trump’s rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, with his wife, Michelle, said he never considered supporting her.

With a flick of the wrist, he dismissed Haley.

“She’s a more middle-of-the-road conservative,” the Auburn resident said. “We’re just staunch conservatives; she’s not quite where we are.”

Republicans currently make up 31% of the electorate in New Hampshire, according to the secretary of state’s office, and Haley will not be able to win Tuesday on the backs of moderates alone.

It is one of her weakest points in Suffolk University’s daily tracking poll. Haley had the support of 25% of Republicans on Sunday. Trump is cleaning up in that category at 65%.

Convert Sununu backers and other undecideds

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Haley have been on a charm offensive over the last several days, visiting small businesses across the state as they try to pull in new voters.

The endorsement from the popular governor of New Hampshire has helped get undecided primary voters to Haley’s events. But the ball is in Haley’s court to convert his supporters.

After the pair came by, Newfields Country Store co-owner Kam Jamison said she was still undecided, but Haley may have just won her over.

“She’s really doing it the right way,” Sununu said of Haley in an interview earlier in the week.

But he acknowledged that voter apathy could be an issue in New Hampshire much like it was in Iowa.

“People just assume Trump’s going to win. So we need to kind of keep working on breaking that mindset that it’s just inevitable for Trump,” he said. “If we have strong voter turnout against what is effectively the incumbent – that’s really what Trump is – that always bodes well for the challenger.”

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