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What the Republican debate could mean for Nikki Haley's presidential future

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Republican presidential debate taking place tonight in Florida is mostly about the fight to be seen as a viable alternative to Donald Trump, and it could be a make-or-break moment for Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador has been showing stronger-than-expected potential in some of the early voting states. NPR's Sarah McCammon recently traveled to New Hampshire, where Haley has been making a big push for Republican voters who want someone new.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: At a diner in Londonderry, N.H., last week, Nikki Haley opened her stump speech with a bold move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: Who has decided who they're going to be with? Really? That's all? I got that much work to do? Seriously?

MCCAMMON: Haley seemed undeterred by the lackluster response from some of the voters who'd crowded into booths and around tables to hear her speak. She was campaigning alongside New Hampshire's Republican governor, Chris Sununu. He has yet to endorse anyone, but he's made it clear he wants a nominee who is not Donald Trump. Almost by definition, most voters who come to Republican primary campaign events in New Hampshire are at least open to that idea. David Balchunis is 70 and still working as a bartender.

DAVID BALCHUNIS: With the inflation, I don't have a choice.

MCCAMMON: Balchunis says he usually votes for Republicans, but he wouldn't vote for Trump again, and he hopes other New Hampshire voters agree.

BALCHUNIS: First of all, I think - you know, I don't believe the polls. And, you know, everybody - Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump. I'm way over that, you know? He had his time. Let's get some, you know, fresh brains in there, fresh ideas and go from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: At Haley's next stop in Nashua, Terry Cates said she agrees.

TERRY CATES: I think he needs to go. He's had his time, and he's more of a distraction for the country.

MCCAMMON: Cates and her husband live part-time in Florida. They say they love Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who's also running for the GOP nomination.

CATES: He's done a great job with Florida, but he doesn't have the experience that Nikki does with foreign affairs. And it's the foreign affairs that, right now, I'm concerned about.

MCCAMMON: DeSantis had been widely seen as the strongest potential rival to Trump, but there are signs that Haley may be moving into that role. Late last month, the Des Moines Register's Iowa poll showed Haley tying with DeSantis in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. She's also showing strength in New Hampshire. Former Republican strategist Rick Wilson says DeSantis has been a disappointment to some Republican donors.

RICK WILSON: He'll be Trump without the craziness. Well, it turned out he was Trump without the charisma, not the craziness.

MCCAMMON: Wilson says some of those donors are now eyeing Haley. Republican pollster Jon McHenry with North Star Opinion Research says if Haley can make a very strong showing in Iowa, New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, she could have a narrow path to the nomination.

JON MCHENRY: It's not overly likely given sort of the cult-like following he seems to have in the - among some primary voters. But I do think Governor Haley has probably the best shot of the rest of the field.

MCCAMMON: McHenry says Haley would need to continue standing out in the debates and hope that more of her rivals drop out, like former Vice President Mike Pence did recently. But Rick Wilson says even with an appetite among some Republicans for a Trump alternative, candidates still have to contend with his base.

WILSON: What do we know about the Republican base? What is their most powerful immune response? Anyone who attacks Trump must be destroyed.

MCCAMMON: While Haley has traded barbs with DeSantis, she's largely avoided going after the front-runner. But that can't go on forever, Wilson says.

WILSON: If she's going to win a race and divide the race up, at some point, she's not going to be sniping at Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie or Vivek Ramaswamy. She has to go at Donald Trump, and the base will destroy her.

MCCAMMON: While Haley and four others face off in Miami, Trump is once again skipping tonight's debate and holding his own event not far away.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Nashua, N.H.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKANGSTREETZ SONG, "STARBAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.

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