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Some GOP Strategists Want Haley to Keep Running, Despite Trump’s NH Win

After New Hampshire, will Nikki Haley finally go on the offensive and sharpen her rhetoric against Donald Trump?

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley delivers remarks at her primary night rally at the Grappone Conference Center on January 23, 2024, in Concord, New Hampshire.

I spent much of Tuesday trying to escape the endless horse race commentary on the New Hampshire primary. At the best of times the breathy nature of such reportage is a lousy way to cover politics; in the Trump era it’s particularly destructive, normalizing his far right proposals, his dictatorial tendencies and his slashing personal insults as just yet more data points for the analysts to use in their point plots as to who’s voting for the man, who’s voting against him and how far ahead of his rivals he is. Lost in the mix, somehow, is that the GOP is now prostrate before a man who fashions himself as a “Great Leader,” talks about his opponents as “vermin” (as did Hitler) and promises four years of retribution and vengeance politics if he is elected again in November.

On the Republican side, the question of the day in New Hampshire seemed to be “Would she or wouldn’t she?” She being Nikki Haley and the “would she or wouldn’t she” referring to whether, in a two-person race in a state with an open primary, Haley could take down the demagogic ex-president.

The answer was, she wouldn’t. After all of the hullabaloo and all of the breathless commentary, Donald Trump won by roughly 12 percent. Independents voted for the South Carolinian over Trump by a two-to-one margin, but the party’s base held firm for Trump. It was a big enough win that it probably ensured the GOP will remain hostage to Trump and to Trumpism throughout this presidential election season — and quite possibly beyond; after all, New Hampshire’s voters are supposed to be more moderate than the GOP base in most other states.

If Haley couldn’t cobble together enough moderate Republicans and independents to win in New Hampshire, surely it will be an even steeper challenge to win in South Carolina next month, not to mention the slew of states that vote a few weeks afterward on Super Tuesday, most of which don’t run primaries open to independents.

Yet, at the same time, it wasn’t such a blowout victory as to instantly drive Haley out of the nominating contest. In fact, because of the way New Hampshire proportions delegates, Trump came away from New Hampshire’s election with only three more delegates than did Haley. In her concession speech, Haley vowed to stay in the race and previewed her attacks on Trump, focusing on the chaos that trails him like a bad odor, on his age and on what she has started portraying as his mental frailty.

Trump responded with rage to Haley’s decision to stay in the race, calling her “DELUSIONAL” on Truth Social and expressing fury with her during his post-primary victory speech to supporters in Nashua, New Hampshire.

A number of anti-Trump GOP strategists have urged Haley to stay in, just in case Trump’s legal troubles become so overwhelming in the next few months that the party will have to seek out a last-minute replacement to their troubled front man.

That Trump’s legal woes will intensify strikes me as entirely likely. That the Trump-ified GOP will find the spine to reject him even then seems to me entirely unlikely. The party is akin to a skier caught in the fog and hurtling toward a cliff, determined to nominate a man who repels large numbers of independent voters. At least, for those who care about democracy, that’s the hopeful scenario — the more pessimistic version is that the GOP’s bet on Trump will be a success, as it was in 2016, that Trump will win, at least in the Electoral College, again à la 2016, and that it’s the country’s democratic institutions that will hurtle toward the cliff edge.

Nikki Haley’s one chance to upset the apple cart is to immediately and massively sharpen her attacks against Trump — after all, she certainly has the funds to allow her to run a brutal and prolonged advertising campaign, and she has to know that playing gently with a man of Trump’s character won’t deliver her victories. If she didn’t know it a week ago, Ron DeSantis’s humiliating exit surely gave her all the warning she needed about Trump’s ability to shred an opponent once he trains his rhetorical guns on them.

That deconstruction of the Trump myth, however, that willingness to tell hard truths to the base, would have been more effective if Haley, DeSantis, and all the other presidential hopefuls had started doing so months ago, in the aftermath of the congressional hearings about January 6. At that time, and especially after the flop of so many Trump-backed candidates in 2022, Trump was still widely seen as a deeply wounded and flawed candidate. But Trump’s competitors failed to accelerate the deconstruction of the Trump myth before a narrative was shaped about the MAGA man’s inevitable march to the nomination. Instead, for months Haley has dodged questions about Trump’s legal woes or, more generally, his amorality; refused to forcefully condemn his actions on January 6, 2021; and this week, even as Trump mocked her name and her ethnic origins, and ridiculed her tenure as UN ambassador, she announced that if she lost the nominating contest, she would endorse Trump — a pledge not reciprocated by her preening, self-congratulatory opponent.

And so, in the horse race picture of things and absent a coherent line of attack from Haley, Trump emerged from New Hampshire the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination for the third time.

Yet, given how Trump has sucked oxygen away from the coverage of other candidates and parties, few people will learn that Joe Biden scored a far larger win on the Democratic side than did Trump on the Republican ballot.

From all of the ink spilled, one would have thought only the GOP was holding a primary Tuesday. In fact, despite President Biden having made a strategic decision to skip the New Hampshire contest, and to focus the effective launch of his electoral campaign on the South Carolina primary in February, Democrats also cast ballots in New Hampshire yesterday — and, even though Biden wasn’t on the ballot, in the end the only plausible opponent to Biden was ex-Congressman Dean Phillips, who secured less than a fifth of the vote. While the write-in votes are still being counted, since the vast majority of those write-ins seem to be going to Biden — though some were apparently written in as “ceasefire” to urge a cessation of hostilities in Gaza — it looks like he will end up with more than 70 percent of the votes cast when the final tallies are released.

The general public may be unenthusiastic about Biden’s decision to seek another term — more than half of voters polled say they would be dissatisfied if Biden were the nominee — but at the end of the day, there’s no real path for a long shot candidate such as Phillips to effectively challenge the president within the Democratic Party’s primary process. The other Democratic Party challenger with name recognition, Marianne Williamson, performed even less persuasively, obtaining a mere 4.8 percent of the vote.

Both Trump and Biden look likely to barrel through the primary season, stamping out opposition before it can really pick up steam. It’s vaguely possible that one or both could be forced to step aside between now and November. But, if the choice boils down to a president who may lose a significant part of his youth vote due to the events unfolding in the Middle East, and an unpopular far right con man facing 91 felony indictments, then, tragically, it’s not beyond the bounds of the possible that the U.S. will choose the con man.

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