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The Rise of Nikki Haley

For some Republican voters, to attend a Nikki Haley campaign rally is to dive headfirst into the warm waters of an alternate reality—a reality in which Donald J. Trump is very old news.

Last Thursday, this comfortable refuge could be found at the Poor Boy’s Diner in Londonderry, New Hampshire, where a few dozen white retirees wedged into booths adorned with vintage license plates and travel posters suggesting a visit to sunny Waikiki. The crowd, mostly Republican and “undeclared” voters wearing sundry combinations of flannel and cable-knit, clapped along as Haley—a youthful 51-year-old—outlined her presidential priorities: securing the border, supporting veterans, promoting small business, and “removing the kick me sign from America’s back.” Haley’s voice was steady; her words were studied; and the attendees beamed from their tables as though they couldn’t believe their luck: Finally, their relieved smiles seemed to say, here was a conservative candidate who didn’t sound completely unhinged.

The voters I met had had it up to here with the former president, they told me: the insults, the drama, the interminable parade of indictments and gag orders. They’ve been yearning for a standard-issue Republican with governing experience and foreign-policy chops, and Haley, the former accountant turned South Carolina governor turned ambassador to the United Nations fits their bill and then some. When Haley finished speaking, voters scrambled to secure a campaign button reading NH ♥ NH. Some of them waited in line for half an hour to shake her hand.

If you haven’t checked the scoreboard lately, Haley’s support has been ticking up steadily for weeks. New polling shows her at nearly 20 percent support in New Hampshire, up more than a dozen points since August, and knocking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis out of second place. She also leads DeSantis in her home state of South Carolina. In Iowa, Haley’s support has grown to double digits, putting her in third.

Haley is not exactly gaining on Trump. In all three states, he’s leading the pack by roughly 30 points, which is a heck of a lot of ground for any candidate to make up. But in New Hampshire, voters were hopeful—even confident—that Haley could win this thing. Maybe, some told me, with a hint of desperation in their eyes, their Trump-free alternate reality could soon be the one we all live in. “She’s normal,” Bob Garvin, a lifelong Republican who had driven up with his wife from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, told me outside the diner. With a sigh, he said, “I just want somebody normal to run for president.”

Some of Haley’s new support comes from her strong performance in the first two GOP primary debates, where she often stood, stoic and unimpressed, as the dudes shouted over one another. When Haley did speak, she generally sounded more measured—and frankly, more relatable—than the others. In the second debate, she turned, eyes rolling, toward the cocky newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy and channeled the exasperation many watching at home felt: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”

Haley has a clear lane. She’s seeking to build a coalition of Never Trump Republicans who’d really rather not pull the lever for Biden and onetime Trump voters who now find him tiresome. She also seems to be appealing to the types of Americans the GOP needs to win in a general election: the college-educated, women, suburbanites. DeSantis, who was once expected to bring the strongest primary challenge to Trump, no longer seems to have a lane at all: Voters who love the former president don’t need DeSantis as an option, and many of the voters who hate Trump have come to see DeSantis as a charmless, watered-down version of the big man himself. “He’d be Donald Trump in a Ron DeSantis mask,” one GOP voter told me in Londonderry.

Haley and DeSantis are surely both well aware that they’re vying for second place. The two have traded attack ads throughout the past month, and a few days ago, Haley was on the radio mocking the governor’s alleged use of heel lifts in his cowboy boots. Overall, though, the trend seems to be that, as the candidates introduce themselves to more and more Americans, DeSantis is losing fans and Haley is gaining them.

At a town-hall event that Thursday evening in nearby Nashua, Haley channeled Stevie Nicks in a white eyelet top and flared jeans—a look that probably worked well for her audience of a few hundred more silver-haired New Hampshirites. The vibe was decidedly un-Trumpian. At one point, the audience burst into admiring applause when a scheduled speaker highlighted Haley’s past life as an accountant.

In a disciplined, 30-minute stump speech, she laid out her conventionally conservative plans for shrinking the federal government, securing the border, and lowering taxes—but she also tossed in a few ideas that might appeal to Democrats, including boosting childhood-reading proficiency, reducing criminal-recidivism rates, and adjusting policy to support “the least of us.”

She took questions from the crowd, and when abortion inevitably came up, Haley was ready. “I am unapologetically pro-life,” she said. “But I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice.” As president, she elaborated, she’d restrict abortion in late pregnancy and promote “good quality” adoption.

Haley tends to speak with such a straight face that she appears almost stern. And she begins many sentences as though she is imparting a very wise lesson: “This is what I’ll tell you.” The voters I met found this appealing. Three separate women told me that they like Haley because they see her as a “strong woman.” One of them, Carol Holman, who had driven from nearby Merrimack with her husband, had voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. But she’s ready for a change.

“People are getting tired of hearing about Trump’s problems,” Holman told me, as she buttoned up her leopard-print coat. Holman loved Haley’s performance in the second debate, and couldn’t wait to hear from the candidate in person. “She knows how to do it; she’s not just a blowhard,” she said, citing Haley’s time as a governor. “She made up my mind tonight!”

The unfolding war in the Middle East also seems to have prompted more voters to take a second look at Haley’s campaign, given her two years of experience at the UN. “People are nervous right now, and she acknowledged a little bit of that fear,” Katherine Bonaccorso, a retired schoolteacher from Massachusetts, told me.

Haley sees the attacks on Ukraine and Israel “as a security issue” for America, Jeanene Cooper, who volunteers as a co-chair for Haley’s campaign in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, told me. “She believes in peace through strength.” In a television interview after the Hamas assault in southern Israel, Haley advised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish them.” Haley has long been hawkish on foreign policy; it’s one of the major differences she has with Trump and DeSantis, who tend to be more isolationist.

The more people hear Haley, the more she’ll rise, Cooper said. It’s time, she added, for the lower-polling candidates—such as former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ramaswamy—to drop out and endorse Haley. As for DeSantis, she added, he can’t fall that far and “think that somehow it’s going to come back.” (The DeSantis campaign has countered such assessments recently, saying they’re confident in the governor’s potential in Iowa—and arguing that polling at this stage in the primary season is not always predictive.)

The third GOP primary debate, which will be held Wednesday in Miami, could give Haley a further boost. And new rules for the fourth debate in December would reportedly require candidates to have reached 6 percent in the polls, which, if their present numbers hold, would narrow the stage to three candidates: DeSantis, Haley, and Ramaswamy (assuming that Trump continues to boycott the debates).

The path for Haley to progress requires DeSantis to fall flat. If she can knock him out of the way, Haley could come in second to Trump in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and then score strongly in her home state of South Carolina, where voters know her best. Trump’s legal standing is an important variable: At least one of the former president’s criminal trials is scheduled to begin just before Super Tuesday, which could cause some of his supporters to switch candidates. If the more mainstream Republicans drop out and endorse her, that could theoretically bring her close to beating out Trump to clinch the GOP nomination.

That’s a lot of ifs. The added national scrutiny that comes with being a primary front runner could send Haley star plummeting just as quickly as it rose. But the biggest problem for her and her supporters is the same conundrum that Republican candidates faced in 2020, and again in the 2022 midterm elections: The stubborn core of the GOP base wants Trump and only Trump, even if others in the party are desperate to wake up in an alternate reality.

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