On the trail: Haley narrows gap with Trump

Robert F. Bukaty

Robert F. Bukaty

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and Gov. Chris Sununu appear at a town hall campaign event, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. Haley received the New Hampshire governor's endorsement. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and Gov. Chris Sununu appear at a town hall campaign event, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. Haley received the New Hampshire governor's endorsement. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and Gov. Chris Sununu appear at a town hall campaign event where Haley received the New Hampshire governor's endorsement, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and Gov. Chris Sununu appear at a town hall campaign event where Haley received the New Hampshire governor's endorsement, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

Former President Donald Trump leaves the stage at a campaign rally, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

Former President Donald Trump leaves the stage at a campaign rally, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha) Reba Saldanha

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha) Reba Saldanha

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis reacts after his son Mason declared that Tom Brady was the best quarterback ever at the Grappone Center on Friday, December 15, 2023 for a Never Back Down event in Concord.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis reacts after his son Mason declared that Tom Brady was the best quarterback ever at the Grappone Center on Friday, December 15, 2023 for a Never Back Down event in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to the crowd at the Grappone Center on Friday, December 15, 2023 for a Never Back Down event in Concord.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to the crowd at the Grappone Center on Friday, December 15, 2023 for a Never Back Down event in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

By PAUL STEINHAUSER

For the Monitor

Published: 12-21-2023 1:20 PM

A month before the presidential primary, Nikki Haley is surging in New Hampshire and closing the gap between herself and front runner Donald Trump

Gov. Chris Sununu, who endorsed Haley and barnstormed the state with the former South Carolina governor, predicted that she “will defy the national media narrative as we reset the entire GOP primary for America.”

That narrative, based on months of polling was that Trump was virtually untouchable in the race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination as he makes his third straight White House run.

Trump has consistently held a formidable lead over his dwindling field of Republican rivals, but that calculus is begging to change.

At the beginning of this week, a survey for CBS News – which was conducted both before and after Sununu’s endorsement of Haley – indicated Haley soaring to 29% support among likely voters in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary, just 15 points behind Trump.

That poll was followed by a Saint Anselm College survey conducted Monday and Tuesday and released Wednesday that pointed to Haley surging to 30% (which is double her support from Saint Anselm’s previous poll in October), with Trump at 44%.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s once again concentrating nearly all of his time and resources in New Hampshire as he runs a second time for the GOP presidential nomination, stood at 12% in the new Saint Anselm survey, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis down to 6% and multi-millionaire biotech entrepreneur and first-time candidate Vivek Ramaswamy at 5%.

 Sununu argues that Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during the first two years of the Trump administration, is “the candidate with momentum to defeat Donald Trump in the NH Primary.”

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The primary will be held on Jan. 23, eight days after the Iowa caucuses lead off the Republican schedule.

Sununu, taking to social media, touted that Haley is accelerating at just the right time.

“This is a two-person race, and we are going to be relentless in earning every last vote,” he wrote. “Let’s do this!”

Trump made history earlier this year as the first former president to be indicted for a crime, but his four indictments, including charges he tried to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss, have only fueled his support among Republican voters. He continues to hold a massive lead over his Republican rivals in national polling.

 But the race for the White House is a battle for the states and their delegates. And Haley is gaining momentum and putting other candidates in the rearview mirror.

DeSantis for months was solidly in second place in the GOP nomination race, but his numbers have slipped recently.

Besides leapfrogging DeSantis for second place in New Hampshire, she's also in second place in her home state, which holds the first southern contest in the GOP calendar.

Haley is also working to make a fight of it in Iowa, where she campaigned this week. Two new polls in Iowa indicate Haley either slightly ahead or slightly behind DeSantis in the battle for a distant second place behind Trump, who enjoys a very comfortable lead in the Hawkeye State.

Sununu, a popular Republican governor who’s won election and re-election to four two-year terms steering New Hampshire, flirted with his own White House run before announcing in early June that he wouldn’t seek the presidency in 2024. Sununu, long a vocal Trump critic, had said he would back one of the former president’s rivals ahead of the primary

His endorsement of Haley appeared to give her campaign extra energy as well as a high-profile and energetic surrogate who has been tireless in touting her during national and local media appearances.

Longtime New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Jim Merrill, a veteran of numerous presidential campaigns, told the Monitor last week that the Sununu endorsement was "a big deal."

"There's no endorsement in New Hampshire you'd rather have. And it's clear he's going to use it early and often to support Haley,” Merrill predicted.

DeSantis landed the endorsement early last month of Iowa’s popular two-term Republican governor, Kim Reynolds. And while Reynolds has joined DeSantis repeatedly on the campaign trail in Iowa in the ensuing weeks, his standing in the state hasn’t been boosted.

Veteran New Hampshire-based Republican consultant Mike Dennehy, who’s served on multiple presidential campaigns, told the Monitor the big difference between Iowa and New Hampshire is independent voters.

Undeclared, or independent voters, make up around 40% of the Granite State’s electorate and can vote in either the Republican or Democratic presidential primary. In Iowa, you must be a Republican to take part in the GOP presidential caucuses, although any voter can switch party preferences on caucus night and declare for a different party.

“Chris Sununu has the most amount of influence on independent voters. So that’s where Haley has taken off,” Dennehy said. “She is still struggling with Republican voters that continues to be her major challenge in the race for president. But I believe Sununu has helped her with independents.”

 While Haley’s trajectory in the latest New Hampshire polls has been grabbing headlines, Neil Levesque, the executive director Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics noted that she still has a lot of ground to cover.

“Even after cutting Trump’s lead in half, she still trails as his support remains steady in the mid-40s,” Levesque said. “Trump’s supporters seem undeterred by the former president’s ongoing legal challenges.”

 The Saint Anselm poll also indicates that President Joe Biden remains the commanding front-runner to win the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire, even though his name won’t appear on the ballot.

 Half of likely Democratic primary voters in the Granite State said they’ll write in the president’s name, with 10% supporting Biden primary challenger Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and 7% backing Marianne Williamson, the best-selling author making her second straight White House run. Nearly three in ten respondents said they were undecided.

While Republicans aren't making major changes to their schedule, the Democratic National Committee overwhelmingly approved Biden’s plan to move South Carolina to the lead primary position on Feb. 3. New Hampshire and Nevada were scheduled to hold primaries three days later, with Iowa entirely losing its early state position. The president and supporters of the new calendar argued that it would empower minority voters, upon whom Democrats have long relied but have at times taken for granted.

To comply with the DNC, New Hampshire would have needed to scrap its 50-year-old state law protecting its first-in-the-nation primary status and expand access to early voting. However, state Democrats lacked the firepower to comply with the national party’s demands as Republicans control the House, Senate, and governor’s office.

New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary was ruled out of compliance with the DNC, and Biden kept his name off the ballot. But a write-in campaign by top Democrats in New Hampshire was launched to prevent the president from suffering an embarrassing defeat in the Jan. 23 primary.

Two Republican state representatives launched a website mocking Democrats for writing in Biden’s name.

It suggests they write in the name of Bozo the clown instead. 

“New Hampshire Democrats, what the hell are you doing?” it states next to a picture of the president with a clown nose. “You might as well write In Bozo.”