Nine months before the first 2024 US presidential primary, Donald Trump’s onetime UN envoy Nikki Haley is barnstorming early-voting New Hampshire, one of several Republicans scrambling to dent the huge poll lead of the nomination front-runner.
With Trump’s legal setbacks mounting, Americans are bracing for a parade of contenders positioning themselves as more moderate, less bombastic alternatives to the former president taking another stab at the White House.
The lesser known candidates seek to defy early polling and the uncomfortable narrative — for them, at least — that Trump is already dominating the race to square off against incumbent Joe Biden in the general election.
Trump’s challengers “are like a facade on the front of a building. They’ll end up going away,” Sandra LaRose, an office manager who voted for Trump, told AFP early Friday over a plate of bacon and hash browns at Manchester’s iconic Red Arrow diner.
Supporters of Haley and other hopefuls “are wearing rose-colored glasses,” LaRose, 58, added. “But if you pull back those glasses, does she really have what it takes to lead?”
The 51-year-old Haley, a child of Indian immigrants and a former governor of South Carolina, appeared undaunted Friday as she hosted an intimate town hall in Laconia — her third in three days — where she wore a sweater with “She who dares wins” knitted on the front.
“I have been underestimated in everything I’ve ever done. And it’s a blessing, because it makes me scrappy, and it makes me work hard,” Haley told some 150 people squeezed into Laconia’s wood-paneled American Legion hall.
While she insists she is in it for the long haul, one question observers might ask is: Why?
Haley, like most other Republican contenders clawing for national attention, is a blip on the polling radar. She hovers between one and five percent in many recent polls.
Only one GOP potential candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is doing demonstrably better.
He has yet to officially launch a presidential campaign but a series of provocative DeSantis political moves — including railing against tolerance-promoting “wokeness” and clashing with entertainment giant Disney — have put him in a political spotlight.
Still, Trump’s national lead is anywhere from 20 to 46 percentage points, something he was quick to brag about Thursday during his own New Hampshire rally where he suggested there was no need to even debate his rivals for the nomination.
“Why would you do that?” he mused.
– ‘Not tough enough’? –
While the contenders say they are in it to win, some voters including 75-year-old Sara Mack see them as possibly auditioning to be Trump’s running mate.
Mack, a voter from Auburn, New Hampshire said at Trump’s event that she respected the Republicans joining the race, but believed their main selling point is merely being less chaotic versions of Trump.
While she appreciates Haley’s foreign policy credentials gained as Trump’s United Nations ambassador, “she’s not tough enough to go to Iran, and North Korea and Putin and China,” Mack said. “Trump is.”
Haley, who has offered herself as a “new generation” of leader, said in Laconia she was anything but soft.
“We took the ‘Kick Me’ sign off our backs at the UN. We were respected again,” she said to applause.
Erica, a 27-year-old New Hampshire native in the military, and who declined to give her last name, said she believes “there are better alternatives” than Trump out there.
Wearing a Nikki Haley T-shirt at the town hall, Erica said candidates will rise if they can “hold themselves true to their word” and present positive ideas that resonate with voters.
“I don’t think it’s going to be impossible to beat Trump,” she said.
Other voters were hostile to the notion Trump could lose to someone like Haley, former vice president Mike Pence, or former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson who announced his bid this week.
Another candidate is Senator Tim Scott, who has spoken of his ambition to become the country’s first Black Republican president.
One undecided voter acknowledged the also-rans were “swimming upstream.”
Brendan Florio, an automobile dealer from Laconia, said he was at Haley’s event to see whether she “can pry my vote away” from the Donald.
But “I think it’s going to be tough for anybody that goes against him,” Florio said.
“And that’s probably one of the reasons DeSantis is holding back from entering the race,” he added.
“Why does he want to subject himself to that if he doesn’t have a chance?”