MANCHESTER, N.H. — Nikki Haley blitzed through New Hampshire on Monday as the last candidate standing against Donald Trump, urging voters not to take for granted that he will be the Republican presidential nominee as she tried to blunt his momentum on the eve of a critical primary.
With the party increasingly falling in line behind the former president, polls showing Haley facing double-digit deficits and a window for her best chance to stop or slow him about to close, the former U.N. ambassador made a final pitch as the candidate who is best equipped to defeat President Biden and usher wins down the ballot for Republicans in November.
Haley seemingly got the race she wanted: a one-on-one matchup with Trump in the state where she’s staked much of her presidential bid. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Sunday exit from the contest and endorsement of Trump added another potential hurdle during a difficult stretch for Haley, following earlier struggles to close the gap with her rival.
“Now, I always speak in hard truths. I voted for Donald Trump twice. I was proud to serve America in his administration. But rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she said at a stop Monday morning in Franklin. “You all know I’m right. Chaos follows him. And we can’t have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive.”
Tuesday’s results are expected to be pivotal — not only for Haley’s path forward in the GOP primary but also for the entire nominating contest. Trump has racked up endorsements from former rivals, lawmakers and others, including from Haley’s home state, and many Republicans see the contest as potentially wrapping up as quickly as it started.
New Hampshire is known for its sometimes surprise finishes — including Sen. John McCain’s 2000 win over George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton’s comeback defeat of Barack Obama in 2008 — and Haley backers are hoping that her growing crowds in the closing days are a sign of voters joining her fold.
Trump, who has been traveling back and forth to New Hampshire as he navigates court hearings, was set to hold a rally Monday night in Laconia. He has criticized Haley repeatedly over the past week, attacking her as a “globalist” who would be soft on the border and a threat to Social Security.
Even as Haley has at times tiptoed around her criticism of Trump, she has effectively become the anti-Trump candidate, receiving the backing of groups like Americans for Prosperity Action that are pushing for the party to move on from the former president.
“It’s pretty much: ‘I’m not Donald Trump,’” said New Hampshire GOP Chairman Chris Ager, describing Haley’s closing message. Ager is neutral in the race.
In recent days, Haley has held back-to-back events and sharpened her attacks on Trump after facing criticism for not going after him harder. She has taken more questions from reporters than she had in months as she makes her closing pitch in New Hampshire — a state where personal appeal and authenticity have proved to be keys to victory.
On Sunday, Haley drew her largest crowd to date in the Granite State: more than 1,200 attendees at a high-energy rally in Exeter. On Monday, she met with small groups of voters at her retail stops before ending the day at a rally with several hundred people in Salem.
Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, said he’s noticed a shift in Haley’s approach.
“I think in the last 72 hours, she really changed her campaign into a challenger campaign. Very vigorous, lots of scheduling items, lots of questions,” Levesque said. “We’ll see if it’s too late.”
Haley is facing an uphill battle. A Washington Post-Monmouth University poll found that 52 percent of potential Republican primary voters are backing Trump, compared with 34 percent for Haley. That poll found that while Haley had nearly doubled her support from November, Trump’s support also grew.
Even as Haley has repeatedly suggested she wanted a two-person race, some Republican strategists said that DeSantis’s and Vivek Ramaswamy’s decisions to leave the race probably only helped Trump. And as the last candidate against Trump, Haley has faced the same challenge DeSantis and others did: how to attack him without alienating Republican primary voters who support him or did so in the past.
Haley has ramped up her attacks on Trump since finishing third in Iowa — questioning his mental fitness after he appeared to confuse her and Nancy Pelosi in remarks at a rally, and criticizing him for being overly friendly with dictators while she served in his administration as U.N. ambassador.
She’s also sought to tie Trump and Biden together, while framing herself as the only candidate who can defeat both.
But Trump’s attacks have put her on the defense. Even at her more intimate stops where she speaks for only a few minutes, she frequently spends part of the time attempting to fact-check his claims about her.
In interviews, many voters at Haley events said their primary reason for supporting her is because she is not Trump. Among them is Brad Marshall, who wore a big smile as he walked off the stage after shaking hands, having a brief conversation and taking a photo with Haley during her stop at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Franklin.
“I plan to vote for Nikki,” said Marshall, 80, an independent voter. Why? He didn’t list a single reason that he liked Haley. “Donald Trump did a good job while he was there. But he’s collected so much garbage around him and distractions, and Democrats have spent four years going after him.”
One wild card in Tuesday’s Republican primary is just how many independent voters turn out. These voters, who have chosen not to register with either major party, account for the biggest single share of the state’s electorate.
New Hampshire Secretary of State David M. Scanlan has predicted record GOP primary turnout of 322,000. To make the race genuinely competitive, Haley would need a historically high percentage of undeclared voters to participate and would also need a significant margin over Trump among them.
In the Post-Monmouth poll released Monday, Haley led Trump among these voters by 10 percentage points — 48 to 38 percent — and they made up 47 percent of the likely electorate. If that percentage increased to 55 percent of the electorate, which is 10 points above the 2012 high point, Trump would still be leading by double digits.
Public polls have been inconsistent in charting Haley’s support among undeclared voters in New Hampshire. While the Post-Monmouth poll gave her a 10-point margin, the newest Suffolk University-Boston Globe-NBC 10 tracking poll put her margin among them at 23 points and showed those voters increasing their support for her.
While some Trump critics have wanted Haley to go after the former president in a more direct way over his conduct, indictments and other matters, much of her pitch to voters has centered on suggesting that he would be weak in a general election.
“When you hear Trump speak, what’s he talking about? Grievances of the past. He’s talking about vendettas … Biden’s talking about investigations,” she said here. “Neither one of them is talking about the future.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who has actively campaigned with Haley across the state, emphasized that having her as the party’s nominee would not only ensure that Republicans win the White House but would also result in down-ballot victories.
“We haven’t been winning very often lately with Trump as the standard-bearer. I want winners. I’m tired of losers,” he said as he introduced her at the Franklin event.
Haley has suggested she will stick it out regardless of the outcome in New Hampshire. But the path ahead could prove difficult, with South Carolina — Haley’s home state, and where Trump is enduringly popular — looming as one of the next big contests in February.
At a restaurant in Manchester on Monday afternoon, a man who shook Haley’s hand urged her to stay in the race. “Don’t worry,” she replied. “We’re going on to South Carolina.”
Trump has drawn large crowds to his rallies in recent days, reflecting his appeal across the state.
“Trump has really got everything going, and I’m just so excited to have him back in office and things get back to normal,” said Caroline Gagan, 60, from Hampton Beach, an independent backing Trump. “I am brand new to volunteering. I’ve never been political, but I’m just done with what’s going on.”
Some New Hampshire Republican officials noted Haley’s relatively lighter schedule immediately after the Iowa caucuses and viewed her decision to skip a debate with DeSantis as a missed opportunity. Haley’s campaign said she went back to South Carolina on one of the days after her father was hospitalized — and in the days since she has ramped up her schedule.
“If you’re going to overtake President Trump, you’re going to want as much airtime as you can, and folks thought that was unusual for somebody trying to catch up to turn away the best television opportunity you can in the state,” Ager said. “When you’re behind you don’t play it safe and run up the middle, you throw a Hail Mary. I think we haven’t seen a sufficient Hail Mary from her to catch up in a normal year.”
Donna and Tom Waldron stood in the morning cold bundled up and excited to see Haley make her closing argument for why New Hampshire voters should support her in the Tuesday primary. For them, the reason was simple: She’s not Trump.
“It’s more of a vote against Trump than anything,” Tom, 68, an independent voter, said. Donna, 67, nodded in agreement.
Asked why he’s voting against Trump, he laughed: “Do you have enough time for that list?”
But both expressed concern at the size of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post where she was speaking.
Donna paused: “I can’t say I’m really optimistic. But I have to remain hopeful people will give Haley a chance.”
“I am hopeful that there’s a larger anti-Trump movement than people think — and that they’ll come out,” she added.
Dan Balz in New Hampshire and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.