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What Nikki Haley (Maybe) Learned in New Hampshire

What Nikki Haley (Maybe) Learned in New Hampshire
What Nikki Haley (Maybe) Learned in New Hampshire

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“Everybody’s waiting to write my obituary.”

This is never a good thing for a candidate to be saying on an Election Day.

But Nikki Haley, the candidate, was trying—pleading—to make a larger point to CNN’s Dana Bash as they sat on raised chairs in the middle of Chez Vachon, the landmark coffee shop and makeshift TV studio on the west side of Manchester, New Hampshire.

“We had 14 candidates,” Haley said, referring to the number of people who were seeking the Republican nomination a few months ago. “It’s now down to two”—Haley and Donald Trump. “That’s not an obituary, that’s somebody who’s a fighter.”

Fair enough. Haley was indeed still here and showing up, which is something to be proud of. She is the last woman standing between the former president and an unimpeded romp to the Republican nomination. This was Haley’s “closing argument” as she made her final rounds in New Hampshire yesterday, greeting volunteers at polling places, doing interviews, and hitting the tables at Chez Vachon. She would keep fighting and continue to flout the naysayers who have trailed her for her entire career. Underestimate me is the message printed on one of Haley’s favorite T-shirts. That’ll be fun.

Almost immediately after the polls closed, a few hours later, networks declared Trump the New Hampshire winner. His margin of victory over Haley, however, looked smaller than expected. “THIS RACE IS OVER,” Trump insisted in a text blasted out to his supporter list just after 8 p.m. Nope, Haley told her Election Night revelers in Concord, vowing to persist as the campaign moved to her home state of South Carolina. “New Hampshire is first in the nation. It’s not last in the nation,” she said in her speech. “This race is far from over.”

I spent much of December and early January watching Haley campaign for the job she quite clearly has been aspiring to for years. She proved to be disciplined and polished, good enough to outlast the battalion of male challengers that were arrayed alongside her—“the fellas,” as she has lately taken to calling her rivals, many of whom endorsed Trump as they fell away. She has claimed repeatedly to be part of a “two-person race” against Trump, despite finishing third in Iowa behind him and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

This felt like wishful thinking at times, but it is unquestionably true now and will present Haley with what’s been a recurring dilemma of her candidacy: How hard will she be willing to campaign against Trump? Will she be as noxious and ornery as the former president surely will be against her? Will she be willing to attack Trump and seize the ample vulnerabilities he provides, even if it risks his unrestrained ire?

Haley was hesitant to go after him when the field was more crowded. She offered only the mildest of critiques—that “chaos follows” Trump “rightly or wrongly” and that he was not “the right president” for these times (as he was before). But it was hardly a sure thing that Haley would deploy her best material against Trump—about his odd behavior and mental capacity and legal problems.

The final days of the New Hampshire campaign offered clues that she might now be willing to do so. She mentioned Trump’s age throughout the day yesterday (inflating it by three years, to 80) and brought up the perplexing sequence from Trump’s Friday night rally, in which he seemed to suggest that Haley had been in charge of security at the Capitol on January 6 (he apparently had mistaken her for Nancy Pelosi).

Perhaps more notably, Haley conveyed that she was willing to draw out the race for as long as necessary. “Joe Biden isn’t going to get any younger or any better,” she said in her speech in Concord. “We’ll have all the time we need to beat Joe Biden.” This carried a sly message directed at Trump: He wasn’t getting any younger or better, either. And the longer the race continued, the more his court cases would advance, new facts would be revealed, and his behavior could spiral. Haley pointed out that voters in 20 states would be casting ballots in the next two months. There would be many more contests to enjoy, or stay alive for.

If nothing else, Haley would live to see another Election Day, in another state.

Primary days can give off an oddly freewheeling and punch-drunk vibe. Candidates, staffers, and volunteers have all done their work. Most of them are exhausted and often battling colds, hangovers, or other ailments. There is no more practice and preparation left to do.

“The hay is in the barn,” as old political hacks like to say. Or, at least one political hack said this—to me—but I forget who it was. I’ve also seen the maxim attributed to stir-crazy football coaches (before the big game) and distance runners (before a race). The basic idea is the same: There’s not much left to do, except find a way to pass hours and burn nervous energy.

Everything that remains tends to be improvisational and hardly strategic. Candidates rush around, trying to get supporters out to vote and, in Haley’s case, to convince them that the race is not over, despite all the polls showing Trump with a big lead.

“I don’t even want to talk about numbers, and I don’t think y’all should either,” Haley admonished Bash at Chez Vachon.

She then mentioned one number in particular: six.

That reflects the sum of votes that Haley received in Dixville Notch, the tiny village in the northern tip of the state that is known for tallying its votes just after midnight on the morning of the primary. “There were more than 10 journalists for every voter,” The New York Times said in its report on the wee-hours scene, which it called “as much a press spectacle as it is a serious exercise in democracy.” (The same could be said about the New Hampshire primary in general, an exercise that features a relatively tiny number of voters whose views are comically amplified by media swarms.)

“All six came to us,” Haley reported of the Dixville Notch vote. “Not part, not one—all six.”

Haley was joined at Chez Vachon by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, her biggest supporter and frequent traveling companion across the state in recent weeks. At one point, I asked Sununu, who was standing next to the kitchen door—nearly getting run over by waitresses carrying plates loaded with pancakes, bacon, and poutine drowned in brown gravy—whether he was worried that this might be the last New Hampshire primary as we know it. Some have predicted as much, given that the Democrats are no longer holding their first contest here. Was he feeling wistful at all, nostalgic maybe?

“Nah, we’re always in this. It never leaves us,” Sununu said. He added that the Democrats had “learned their lesson”—that they never should have messed with New Hampshire and tried to take away its rightful spot at the front of the primary parade.

Sununu has shown himself willing to question Trump’s age and mental fitness more directly than Haley had been until the past few days. “If he’s off the teleprompter, he can barely keep a cogent thought,” Sununu said of Trump in an interview with Fox News yesterday. “This guy is nearly 80 years old.”

“He’s 77,” the Fox host corrected him.

“That’s nearly 80,” Sununu maintained. “We’ll do math later.”

He has an obvious point about Trump, one that’s worth making. But this is a pet peeve of mine. Sununu and Haley often say that a Donald Trump–Joe Biden rematch would feature “two 80-year-olds.” Haley recently said that if Trump were convicted, and she were elected, she would likely pardon the former president. Why? Because it’s not in the country’s interest to have “an 80-year-old man sitting in jail,” she said.

It sounds like a minor thing, but if Haley is going to attack Trump (correctly) for lying, if she’s going to try to claim some moral high ground in this race, she herself should not be fudging the facts. There’s no need to anyway; at 52, she’s clearly younger than both him and Biden.

Since I figured the encounter at Chez Vachon might be the last time that I’d be so close to Nikki Haley—maybe ever—I decided to be one of those nuisance reporters and follow her out of the restaurant.

“How old is President Trump?” I asked her as she crossed Kelley Street. Haley ignored me.

“How old is President Trump?” I tried again. She kept walking. Someone else shouted a question that I didn’t hear.

“There’s a lot of energy, that’s what we’re seeing today,” Haley said in a rote tone, disappearing into a town car and motoring off to her next stop, and then more stops after that.

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