PETERBOROUGH, New Hampshire—The audience of 150 people that packed into a museum to see Nikki Haley on a chilly Saturday afternoon burst into an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” as soon as the Republican presidential contender took the microphone. Fighting for her political life ahead of a crucial primary, the former South Carolina governor paused for a moment once the song concluded and broke into a big grin.
“You can all give me a birthday present on Tuesday,” Haley told the crowd without missing a beat. In the final stretch of the campaign in “first in the nation” New Hampshire on Tuesday, Haley is visiting tiny, neighborhood country stores, mid-size coffee shops and bakeries, and expansive breweries and full-service diners. She’s making unannounced retail stops, pitching the paltry half-dozen potential voters that happen to be there when she arrives, and hosting scheduled, formal campaign rallies in hotel ballrooms full of more than 500 cheering supporters.
George Hansel, the former mayor of Keene who introduced Haley before her event in that town Saturday, said he told her before they went onstage that she must be “exhausted.”
“She’s like, ‘No!’” said Hansel. “She’s running through the finish tape.”
Haley will need high turnout—and every Republican and independent she can win over among the record 322,000 voters New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan projects will participate in the GOP primary—to pull off an upset over frontrunner Donald Trump.
Trump, Haley’s former boss, remains the overwhelming favorite to win the New Hampshire primary, leading her by about 15 percentage points in the state’s RealClearPolitics polling average. And after trouncing the Republican field in the Iowa caucuses on January 15, another victory would put the former president on the cusp of securing his third consecutive GOP nomination. Add to that a slew of challenging developments for Haley over the past week—from finishing third in the Hawkeye State to an avalanche of prominent Republicans (including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after suspending his campaign Sunday) endorsing Trump—and no one could blame the underdog White House hopeful for feeling demoralized.
But if that’s the case, Haley, newly 52, isn’t showing it as she furiously crisscrosses New Hampshire in what is likely her last chance to prove the naysayers wrong and contend for the 2024 nomination. Asked Saturday if she was enjoying the “process,” Haley nodded affirmatively.
“Yeah! It is what you make it,” she told reporters in Peterborough. “You know, you don’t do something like this if you’re not passionate. I mean, any candidate that puts themselves in this, it’s a massive sacrifice, personally, physically, emotionally, with your family, everything. But you do it out of love of country.”
The process, as Haley’s full schedule in the final days before the election demonstrates, includes plenty of pressing the flesh to convince those last-minute undecided voters to give her a shot—face-to-face interactions that Trump, who generally sticks to large rallies, largely hasn’t had. A pair of stops last week in the state’s North Country, including a rally at the historic Mount Washington Hotel, placed her in front of voters in that far-flung part of New Hampshire.
On Friday, John Nevin, a 68-year-old veteran from Wilton, was sitting at the bar at Grill 603 in Milford when Haley walked in to see the happy hour set. Nevin wheeled around on his barstool to wish Haley a happy birthday, and they chatted for about a minute. Afterward, Nevin said he told Haley he had encouraged two Democrats to vote for her, as well as his sister, whom he described as pro-Trump. “She said, ‘thank you,’” Nevin added with a grin.
Before she kicks off her stump speech, Haley will often ask who in the audience is seeing her in person for the first time, and nearly everyone will raise their hands. One of those on Saturday was Deborah Peña, 28, from Walpole, who told The Dispatch as she waited in Keene to get a photo with Haley that she was still deciding between her and DeSantis but that she liked finally getting to see and hear from Haley after months of only seeing her ads. “A lot of what she said seems to be what most Americans value,” Peña said. “Taking back the government from, just, excessive spending.”
Sometimes, these meet-and-greets turn into long, intense exchanges with voters. Dan O’Donnell, a real estate agent and retired 40-year educator, said he isn’t thrilled with Haley’s vow to pardon Trump and would like to see her offer a more forceful, preemptive rejection of any offer to be his vice presidential running mate. The 68-year-old, independent voter told Haley so during a five-minute conversation she initiated while making the rounds Friday at Mary Anne’s diner in Amherst. O’Donnell nonetheless said he plans to vote for Haley on Tuesday. “I’m voting against Trump,” he emphasized.
Paul Gonsalves, 66, is another independent voter who talked with Haley—about her husband’s military service and his own 30 years in the Navy—while eating at Mary Anne’s. He was enthusiastic, saying he “absolutely” planned to support her. Gonsalves said he usually votes Republican but has always opposed Trump. “We just talked about—it’s time to get back to the basics and getting things done,” Gonsalves said. “I was telling her, I was hoping she could be that voice that could, kind of, tell the American people that we need to get back to [that].”
Joined at almost every stop by her key backer here, the popular (and retiring) Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, Haley delivers the same stump speech, virtually word for word, hitting the same accents and inflections, as though it’s the very first time she’s said the words aloud to an audience. She holds patient, one-on-one conversations with voters in diners and post campaign-rally picture lines, and, especially lately, attacks Trump not with the frustration of a losing candidate but with a verve suggesting Haley believes she can win.
“The most amazing thing that I find about Nikki Haley is, whether it’s her first event of the day, or her last, she approaches every event with this infinite energy. It’s amazing, because she believes so much in what she’s doing,” Sununu said later Saturday while introducing Haley to a crowd of roughly 200 who gathered to see her at a “Politics and Pizza” event on the campus of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge.
“It’s just awesome to witness,” Sununu added. “I’m having a ball; I know she’s having a lot of fun.”
Everywhere Haley goes, her personally curated music playlist follows, a mix of pop and soul hits from the 1970s and 1980s along with some pointed selections like Sheryl Crow’s “Woman In the White House.” In Rindge, after Sununu welcomed her onstage, Haley digressed briefly to comment on the first time she heard the song Sununu had chosen to come out to at her events. “All of a sudden they introduce him and I hear him walk out to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns N’ Roses,” she said. “And I looked at him and I was like, ‘Niiiice.’ My first concert, believe it or not, was Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses opening up for them.”
Haley says her music obsession has helped make what has been a political slog of a nearly year-long campaign a little more joyful.
“I am a music buff. I love it. It makes me feel good. I think music makes life better,” Haley told The Dispatch during an interview here in New Hampshire back in early July, when she was wallowing in the low single digits in public opinion polls. “I want people to feel what I like. It’s my hype music. It’s what I love. It’s what makes me feel good. So I hope it makes everybody else feel good in the process.”
Haley’s final five days of campaigning in New Hampshire have Sununu’s fingerprints all over them. Taking his direction would seem to make sense. Governors here are elected to two-year terms, so by the time Sununu steps down early next year, he will have served eight years and been elected to four consecutive terms as New Hampshire’s chief executive, amid two Trump losses here and failed Republican bids for the U.S. Senate and the state’s two congressional seats.
But some of New Hampshire’s grizzled Republican insiders are critical of Haley’s approach, especially those among them anxious to defeat Trump. The hand-wringing was perhaps sparked by Haley’s decision to fly home to South Carolina late Tuesday evening to visit her ailing 90-year-old father, information not shared with the press until early Wednesday evening, when The Dispatch broke the news.
Haley, they say, should not have refused an invitation to participate in a televised debate that was to be hosted by ABC News and WMUR, the state’s only and beloved network television affiliate. Haley said she would only appear if Trump did, too, trying to deny her fading rival, DeSantis, a platform. Haley’s New Hampshire critics also insist she should be hosting back-to-back town hall meetings where voters can pepper her with questions, similar to what John McCain used to propel his unexpected victory in the 2008 primary.
But Haley seems intent to do New Hampshire her way, pulling pints from behind the bar in Nashua after her Saturday rally there and hosting television personality “Judge Judy” (Sheindlin) at her evening rally in Exeter on Sunday, just 48 hours before the polls are scheduled to close on Tuesday.
It was a festive atmosphere as more than 1,000 people filled up the Exeter High School auditorium to cheer on Haley and catch a glimpse of a television celebrity, befitting the outward mood of the candidate. Haley’s playlist was blaring her favorites, from AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding out for a Hero,” to Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” There were chants of “Let’s go Nikki” and a campaign T-shirt toss, until finally, Sheindlin got things started with her trademark cutting humor.
“I’m not here, necessarily, to bash the competition, although I’m perfectly capable of doing that,” she said, to an eruption of laughter from the crowd. “It’s time for Nikki Haley. This is her moment. She is a star.”