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Now or Never

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley Have One Chance to Stop Trump

New Hampshire is tailor-made for Trump’s opponents—but they’re blowing their best chance to stop him.

No other event on the political calendar boasts the storied history of the New Hampshire primary: antiwar crusader Eugene McCarthy stunning Lyndon Johnson in 1968 with an epic showing; Ronald Reagan stealing a line from an old Spencer Tracy movie in 1980 as he shouted, “I paid for this microphone”; and Bill Clinton promising voters in 1992 that, if they rescued his scandal-plagued campaign, he would remember them “until the last dog dies.”

New Hampshire may again be in the crosshairs of history on the night of January 23, as the returns rush in from the first-in-the-nation Republican primary. The Granite State will provide an answer to one of the most pivotal questions ever facing American democracy: Can Donald Trump be stopped in his drive for his third GOP nomination?

If Trump sweeps the January 15 Iowa caucuses and then romps in the New Hampshire primary eight days later (the date is still unofficial), the GOP race would be effectively over. With the Republican primary calendar filled with winner-take-all states in March and beyond, the dwindling chances of derailing the Mar-a-Lago megalomaniac would depend on either the legal system or divine intervention palsying the hands of Trump supporters as they fill out their ballots. The importance of this year’s New Hampshire GOP primary transcends symbolism and history. The reason: The verdict from the Granite State will dominate media storylines for a full month, given the long pause between its primary and South Carolina’s the following month.

With its GOP primary open to independent voters, New Hampshire is the last best hope of Never Trump Republicans. This is Horatius at the bridge. In fact, New Hampshire is Horatius and the bridge all rolled into one.

New Hampshire has never been a true Trump bastion. Vying with Massachusetts as the most secular state in the union, New Hampshire lacks the evangelical conservatives whose Faustian bargain with Trump has defined Republican politics since 2016. Trump did win the 2016 New Hampshire primary, but with just a bit over one-third of the vote. With its educated electorate—more than 40 percent of voters have four-year college degrees—New Hampshire is a swing state that has been tilting blue for years: Democrats have captured the state in the last five presidential elections. In 2020, Joe Biden won the state by 59,000 votes. Then in 2022, Trumpian clones got wiped out as Democratic incumbents easily retained a Senate seat and two House seats.

Yes, polls do show Trump pulling in more than 40 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. But parsing the numbers from two mid-September surveys (CBS News and CNN) leads to the conclusion that only about one-quarter of the Republican primary electorate is unequivocally committed to the oft-indicted former president. Moreover, New Hampshire is a difficult state to accurately poll, since primary voters are constantly changing their minds. A 2019 paper on the primary by New Hampshire pollsters David Moore and Andrew Smith pointed out, “typically, leading up to the election anywhere between half and three quarters of voters are still trying to decide whom to choose.” After Nikki Haley spoke in mid-October in Rochester, I met the quintessential New Hampshire primary voter: Kathy Morin, a retired hairdresser. When I asked Morin if she was committed to Haley, she replied, “I’m sold. Maybe.”

There are enough “maybes” in New Hampshire to hand Trump a stinging defeat on January 23. At least, that’s the theory.

I have covered every New Hampshire primary since I arrived in 1980 tracking a candidate named George Bush—no middle initials were needed in those days—who was out to prove that he was “up for the Eighties.” Returning to the Granite State in mid-October of this year, I felt for the first time ever that the primary was being conducted in slow motion. Instead of neighbors proudly proclaiming their political allegiance, the only lawn signs visible across the state were for municipal candidates in the November local elections. I was not alone in noting the political torpor. Tom Rath, a Concord attorney whose primary history dates back to his youthful support for Nelson Rockefeller in 1964, told me, “I’ve never seen a New Hampshire primary where there’s been so little movement.” Over lunch, Chris Galdieri, a political science professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, cracked, “I feel like I’m watching a high school production of a presidential primary.”

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are the two candidates who, based on polls and finances (including Super PACs), appear to have the staying power to challenge Trump in New Hampshire. With his anti-Trump fervor, Chris Christie is also betting on the Granite State. But Christie, who finished sixth in the 2016 New Hampshire primary, is saddled with a near-fatal disapproval rating of more than 65 percent in the CNN poll of the state. Yet watching Haley and DeSantis on their mid-October swings through the state highlighted that they, too, have serious problems. More than their predictable right-wing ideology, more than their timorous refusal to engage with Trump unless pressed, both candidates were guilty of the cardinal sin in politics—being boring.

Haley, as ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, is perceived as the only major Republican challenger with foreign policy heft. The New York Times even declared in a recent page one print headline, “Haley’s Strong Support of Israel Could Be Crucial to Campaign.” But in New Hampshire, less than a week after Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel, Haley bizarrely refused to emphasize the Middle East as a major campaign theme. It was far less a political decision and far more the unwillingness of a fledgling candidate to jigger with the structure of her stump speech. Haley, it seems, suffers from the same malady that made Marco Rubio a laughingstock in the 2016 Republican primaries: She is so wedded to her uninspiring talking points that she clings to them like a security blanket.

Speaking to a mostly gray-haired crowd of about 150 at an American Legion hall in Rochester, Haley talked for 21 long minutes before she ever mentioned Israel. Instead, voters heard the former South Carolina governor rail against $7.4 billion in Republican-sponsored earmarks in Congress, as if they mattered at a time of a $1.7 trillion deficit. They were treated to the riveting tale of her epic battle in the South Carolina legislature to demand recorded votes on pay raises. And the audience even applauded when Haley declared—invoking an extreme niche issue—“Let’s put vocational classes back in our high schools.”

When she finally got there, Haley’s words on Israel were fierce, but she had buried the lede. She invoked her 2017 visit to Israel, when she toured a captured tunnel built by Hamas under the border with Gaza. And she used that experience to say flatly, “They don’t value life. But they know that the Israelis do.” Then she went on to frame the geopolitical struggle in religious terms: “I’ve always believed that no one can destroy what God has blessed. God has blessed Israel.”

In later appearances at a candidate forum in Exeter sponsored by Gannett newspapers and at a state Republican Party event in Nashua, Haley moved up her Israel material. But only slightly. At both events, Republicans heard Haley target earmarks and extol vocational education long before she commented on the news that was dominating the headlines.

If Haley was too inflexible as a candidate, then DeSantis erred in the other direction by coming across as a political changeling. The flailing Florida governor—making his first trip to New Hampshire in nearly two months as part of an overhyped campaign “reboot”—spoke to more than 200 business types at a venerable preprimary event called “Politics and Eggs” at Saint Anselm College.

Instead of the war-on-woke warrior, DeSantis came across as a shorter, less handsome version of Mitt Romney running in 2012 on his record as a “severely conservative” governor of Massachusetts. But try as he might to be a “Happy Warrior,” DeSantis 2.0 still struggled to make a human connection in a speech that aroused scant applause.

The silence was deafening as DeSantis boasted, “The results we’ve been able to produce are second to none. We’ve run massive budget surpluses every year I’ve been governor. We have paid down almost 25 percent of the state’s total outstanding debt.” I could go on quoting DeSantis, but I might fall asleep at the computer keyboard.

That was DeSantis as kindly Dr. Jekyll. Three hours later, at the Republican Party’s First in the Nation Leadership Summit in Nashua, DeSantis went full Mr. Hyde. In a speech that H.L. Mencken in another era might have mocked as “boob bait,” DeSantis declared to cheers, “People like Fauci need to be brought to justice.” Predictably, DeSantis ran through his greatest-hits album, bragging about “eliminating critical race theory” from Florida schools and boasting, “We stood up to the most powerful company in the history of the state of Florida, Disney, to say that we are not going to let the sexualization of our curriculum happen, particularly in elementary school.”

Candidates routinely make different pitches to different audiences. But rarely are the changes in tone this extreme in a single day. These abrupt rhetorical shifts may help explain why authenticity is almost as much of a problem for DeSantis as likability.

Part of the problem in defining the race in New Hampshire is that both Haley and DeSantis, unless specifically questioned, treat Trump as He Who Must Not Be Named. While Trump in his cruelty does have a certain resemblance to Lord Voldemort, the leading contenders are carrying the Harry Potter cosplay to ridiculous extremes. Haley, for example, in Rochester never mentioned the name of the president who appointed her as U.N. ambassador.

At “Politics and Eggs,” DeSantis was asked whether the 2020 election was stolen. The Florida governor has, in the past, reluctantly admitted that Biden was duly elected. This time—even though there were few Sidney Powell–style conspiracy theorists in the business crowd—DeSantis went full maybe, assailing Trump’s competence as an election denier. “If that is true,” DeSantis said, reveling in the conditional tense, “he was the sitting president of the United States and let that happen to him. I would never let that happen.” During his lengthy convoluted answer, DeSantis only once dared to utter Trump’s name.

Instead, Haley and DeSantis communicate by code, as if they were dissidents trying to get a political message past the censors in a totalitarian country. In Nashua, at the GOP’s so-called Leadership Summit, the 51-year-old Haley declared, “To win the majority of Americans, you’re gonna have to have a new generation of conservative leader. You gotta leave the negativity and the baggage and the headlines of the past and move forward.” DeSantis is fond of talking about a president who can serve two full terms “to get the job done.” The 77-year-old Trump, of course, could only serve one more term—assuming he would abide by the Constitution.

Haley and DeSantis somehow believe that they can successfully get through the primaries without enraging the Former Guy or his most ardent supporters. In fact, they recently seem more interested in going after each other—shades of Jeb Bush and Rubio squabbling in 2016 as Trump burned through the primaries. Confronted with an unavoidable direct question about Trump at the town hall in Exeter, Haley first gushed, “Donald Trump was the right president at the right time,” before she had the moxie to add, “But I don’t think he’s the right president now.” Haley’s problems with Trump are not ideological, however. She quickly stressed, “I agree with a lot of his policies.” Somehow Haley wants Republicans to believe that she is the only bulwark against the most dreaded outcome: “President Kamala Harris.”

What gives outsize importance to New Hampshire’s primary is a quirk in the political calendar: There will be no major Republican contests between New Hampshire and the February 24 South Carolina primary. (To be technical, there will be Republican caucuses in Nevada on February 8, but the state party has so rigged things for Trump that the preordained outcome will probably be discounted.)

Political handicappers should mind the gap. A New Hampshire victory for Haley, DeSantis, or even a surprise candidate would spark nonstop speculation that maybe, just maybe, Trump is finally yesterday’s man. But for that to happen, the candidates must be brave enough to confront Trump directly. Haley and DeSantis should realize that the history of the New Hampshire primary was not forged by timorous candidates spouting vaporous platitudes about new generations of leadership and serving two full terms in the White House.