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The Hill
The Hill
6 Jan 2024
Julia Manchester

NextImg:Haley hits hurdles in challenge to Trump

Nikki Haley is hitting hurdles as she seeks to take on former President Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

The former U.N. ambassador scrambled this week to clarify comments she made on the campaign trail about the cause of the Civil War and faced backlash after she told New Hampshire voters they would correct the results of the Iowa caucuses.

While Haley has seen good polling and fundraising news, her recent stumbles could hurt her chances to overtake Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Iowa — keeping him in the race and blunting her momentum in New Hampshire. 

“She’s been operating for the last three or four months basically free of scrutiny,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “And what she’s shown is were she in fact the Republican presidential nominee, she’s not ready for prime time because the Democrats would pounce on both of those comments.” 

President Biden’s campaign was one of the first to pounce on Haley for failing to mention slavery in response to a question in December about the cause of the Civil War, writing in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “it was about slavery.” 

On the Republican side of the aisle, DeSantis, who is betting his campaign on Iowa, was quick this week to seize on Haley’s comments about New Hampshire correcting the results in Iowa. 

“I think it was incredibly disrespectful to Iowans to say somehow their votes need to be, quote, corrected,” the Florida governor said in an interview with KFAB in Omaha, Neb. “I think she’s trying to provide an excuse for her not doing well. You know, her allies and her have spent a huge amount of money here.” 

O’Connell noted that Haley’s comments about Iowa could also open her up to future attacks from Trump if he wins the Iowa caucuses. 

“I’m willing to bet [Trump] is going to magnify that comment and say, ‘See Nikki Haley doesn’t like Iowa, probably doesn’t like you either, New Hampshire,’” he said. 

Polls show Trump as the dominant front-runner in Iowa, leading the pack with 51.6 percent support, according to The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average out of the state. DeSantis trails in second place at 18 percent, while Haley closely follows at 17.1 percent. 

DeSantis also hit Haley over her comments about the cause of the Civil War last month, saying Haley “caves” when she faces scrutiny and that it’s “not difficult” to acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War. 

Trump’s allies also went on offense against Haley following her Civil War remarks. Last month the pro-Trump super PAC Mark America Great Again Inc. sent out an email proclaiming “Haley is clearly not ready for primetime,” and this week, his campaign rolled out an ad in New Hampshire portraying Haley as weak on the southern border. 

And in a statement on Friday, the pro-Trump PAC hit Haley for recently unearthed remarks from 2015 in which Haley said immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally shouldn’t be called criminals.

“Nikki Haley disqualified herself last night from the Republican nomination. Haley thinks that President Trump might be a criminal, but not the illegals invading this nation,” said the PAC’s spokesperson Karoline Leavitt, referring to Haley’s CNN town hall Thursday. 

Trump’s move to attack Haley in New Hampshire comes as her campaign has seen a notable boost in state polling. A poll released by the American Research Group on Thursday showed Haley at 33 percent supporting the state, up 4 points from a December survey. The poll showed Trump continuing with a four-point increase at 37 percent support in the state. The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average in New Hampshire has Trump leading Haley by 11.9 percent. 

“She’s been climbing and climbing here in New Hampshire and then got the endorsement of Gov. [Chris] Sununu and that really propelled her significantly in the polls and in the public domain here,” said Matthew Bartlett, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “The higher you go, there’s going to be more pressure, more scrutiny. 

“You’re going to find speedbumps on the road, and then sometimes you’re going to stub your toe,” he added. 

While there have been some speedbumps for Haley on the campaign trail, there’s also been some good news along the way. On Wednesday, her campaign announced it raked in a whopping $24 million in the fourth quarter of 2023. The latest fundraising haul is more than double her previous hauls this cycle and brought her fundraising total to $50 million this cycle. 

Additionally, Haley has continued to rise in the polls nationally. Polling from The Hill/Decision Desk HQ average shows Haley in second place nationally with 11.3 percent support, trailed by DeSantis at 11 percent. FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average also shows Haley in second place for the first time this cycle. 

Haley’s team says the stepped-up attacks from Trump and DeSantis are indicators they are nervous about her rise. 

“Everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Trump is attacking Nikki for one reason: she’s the only candidate with momentum. It’s clear this has become a two-person race between Nikki and Trump,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement to The Hill. “Voters have a clear choice — the drama and chaos of the past, or a new generation of conservative leadership.”

As for the comments about the cause of the Civil War and New Hampshire correcting Iowa, Haley has signaled that she is moving on. Haley has said she assumed it was a “given” that the Civil War was about slavery when asked about the topic last month, while Sununu said she made a “mistake” in her answer and “cleared it up quickly.” 

When asked about the remarks in a CNN town hall on Thursday, Haley cited having Black friends growing up. Haley’s critics on the left and the right were quick to highlight the remarks, but strategists say that the saga surrounding the remarks is not going to register closely with GOP primary voters. 

“That was a mistake and the cleanup was not handled well,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, noting the timing of Haley’s original remarks between Christmas and New Year’s. “It’s one thing to have people outraged rightly or not on TV networks, but those aren’t Republican primary voters. So their reactions to that are going to be different from what we hear in mainstream newsrooms.” 

However, when she was asked by CNN in Iowa about saying New Hampshire would correct Iowa, Haley was met with some boos and laughter from the audience. 

“Oh my gosh,” Haley responded lightheartedly, going on to note that the early contest states “banter against each other on different things.”

“New Hampshire makes fun of Iowa; Iowa makes fun of South Carolina; it’s what we do,” Haley said, saying politics have become “too serious” and “too dramatic.” 

Bartlett cited 2015 comments from Trump in which he said Iowa voters were “stupid” if they believed his then GOP-candidate rival Ben Carson’s life story. Trump and Carson were neck and neck in GOP primary polls at the time. 

“The notion of Iowa starts it, you all correct it is just a fact,” Bartlett said. “I think most people in Iowa get that they don’t have a great track record of picking the nominee.”