HomeTop StoriesFive months later, Nikki Haley is still waiting for her moment

Five months later, Nikki Haley is still waiting for her moment

NORTH CONWAY, NH — When Nikki Haley entered the presidential race on Feb. 15, she scored 4.5%.

Five months later it is at 4.4%.

But according to Haley, and those of her allies, she has everyone exactly where she wants them: doubting her.

“I’ve been underrated in everything I’ve ever done,” Haley told a crowd of voters in northern New Hampshire this month. “And it’s a blessing because it makes me cranky.”

At City Hall here, Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and twice-elected governor of South Carolina, explained that she’s very familiar with overcoming small polls, low name ID, and minimal press coverage.

There was her first run for the state legislature in 2004, when she unseated an old incumbent after entering the race to little fanfare. Then there was her first gubernatorial run in 2010, emerging from a deep field of well-known contenders.

“I was ‘Nikki who?'” she said. “I had 3% in the polls. I had the least money. And I worked like no other in South Carolina and won.

Those doubts are not likely to go away any time soon. Haley, the only female contender in the GOP presidential primaries, has operated largely neutral as her rivals have seen major and minor shifts in the polls. Here in the Granite State, where Haley has been targeting heavily, a University of New Hampshire study published Tuesday found that she placed sixth, just behind North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – two aspirants who entered the race almost four months after her.

And even as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign has stumbled out of the gate — leaving room for one of the many alternatives for former President Donald Trump to climb into second place — much of the attention has turned not to Haley, but to her South Carolina compatriot Senator Tim Scott. In a confidential memo, DeSantis’s campaign cited Scott as a potential rising threat, while the former governor, who had first appointed Scott to the seat, was dismissed as attracting “little to no interest.”

In addition, several Republicans who spoke to NBC News said they didn’t expect Haley’s fortunes to change any time soon. Terry Sullivan, the former campaign manager for Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid in Florida, said Haley’s message was too “muddled.”

She has tried to tout her time as UN ambassador as she took on Trump, the man who gave her the position. She has pushed a strong message of foreign policy, even though her main experience in that field has been representing the United States at an institution conservatives detest. And she has tried to tout her unique background as the daughter of Indian immigrants and South Carolina’s first female governor, while also criticizing identity politics.

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“She’s trying to be the Goldilocks candidate,” Sullivan said. “And it takes a very clear message to get through and resonate with primary voters who clearly want an alternative to Trump but just don’t see it there.”

Haley, whose campaign declined an interview request for this article, has so far built her campaign around holding town hall-style events in Iowa and New Hampshire, with a lesser focus on her home state.

“When people see her, they’re going to be really pleasantly surprised,” said former New Hampshire state representative Kim Rice, a supporter of Haley. “And I think we’re going to see a big shift.”

Nikki Haley (Alex Brandon / AP File)

Where Haley fits in

On the stub, Haley’s pitch focuses on a more muscular foreign policy — namely countering China and supporting Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia — curbing the national debt by reforming entitlement programs and offering more moderate coverage of social issues compared to the primary field. They are positions that could help her with some voters wearied by Trump and traditional conservatives, but largely put her out of line with much of the primary electorate.

“Nikki is not fighting social issues that affect the 1 and 2 percent; she’s battling issues that affect every family — and that’s their wallets,” said South Carolina State Representative Chris Wooten, a Haley supporter. “And their protection.”

In North Conway, voters said they were not committed Haley backers, but wanted to get to know her better as they weighed their primary vote and sought who could best stand against Trump.

‘I’m here to listen. I’m giving her a chance to convince me to at least pay attention,” said Greg Wannenwetsch, a resident of Center Harbor, New Hampshire, who visited Haley’s town hall here. “I am disappointed that Trump has so far wiped everyone out. I want to see a real campaign. And I don’t want everyone to be defeated before this ever starts.”

But he added: “I’m afraid she might not be conservative enough for me.”

Haley’s pitch aims to win in November, something she nods to when she talks about how the GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of eight national elections and hasn’t won many major races in recent years.

“She has all the tools,” said a Republican operative who did not work for a presidential candidate, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘She’s been tested; she won from behind. She is the person at the bottom of the ballot box. She has accomplished great things. She is dynamic on the stump; she interacts with voters. She has a small, skinny staff. She has accumulated many favors across the country and helped candidates in tough election cycles over the past few years. So she has the right type of surgery. It’s just if she can ever kick into another gear.”

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There have been positive developments in the field of fundraising in recent days. The Haley campaign raised more than $5.3 million this quarter and has more than $6.8 million in cash, nearly $3 million more than it started the second quarter, according to the campaign’s filing with the Federal Election Commission.

Scott, who ended the period with about $21 million in the bank after a wire transfer from his Senate account, spent about $1 million more than he brought in, while DeSantis’ campaign finances are showing some flashing warning signs.

In a memo released Wednesday, Mark Harris, the chief strategist of the pro-Haley super PAC Stand for America, argued that Haley is one of only four candidates to win the nomination, alongside Trump, DeSantis and Scott. He pointed to opportunities in Trump’s plummeting polls, questions about DeSantis’ viability and Scott’s spending.

Team Haley, Harris said, is “about to enter the second phase of the campaign,” and he said the super PAC will “fund an aggressive voter contact campaign to raise awareness about Nikki” in the coming weeks.

“While it is unlikely there will be a huge movement in the polls before the end of the year, our effort is to lay the groundwork for Nikki, whose incredible track record, talent for retail politics and determination to win will enable her to make a strong late move in New Hampshire and Iowa,” Harris wrote.

Image: Nikki Haley (Meg Kinnard / AP file)

Image: Nikki Haley (Meg Kinnard / AP file)

‘She’s not worried’

Haley continues to face a problem that has plagued the entire GOP field: how to differentiate himself from Trump without alienating his base, which is what it takes to win.

“You can sell them on Nikki Haley. I know how to do that,” Iowa State Representative Austin Harris, a Haley supporter, said of the voters. “But how do you convince them to move forward with President Trump?”

When asked if Haley could step out of the pack of challengers to seriously challenge Trump for the nomination, a Trump campaign official answered bluntly, “No.”

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“She was like the No. 1 surrogate requested in 2022,” this person added. “And you would think she would have found a way to parlay that and cash in all those chips, but she just hasn’t been able to.”

A possible warning sign for her bid: Haley has found heavy sledding in the battle for support in her home state, which also hosts a critical early primary. Rep. Nancy Mace, RS.C., for whom Haley campaigned in a bruising primary against a Trump-backed rival, has remained neutral. Many others have flocked to support Scott’s candidacy or are aligning themselves with Trump or DeSantis.

“Nikki has a lot of enemies,” a South Carolina political operative said of Haley’s standing with GOP leaders across the state.

Her campaign attributes the disparity in approval with Scott, who has received dozens more in Palmetto state, to unpopular decisions she made as governor, including requiring on-the-record voting for all legislation and issuing report cards showing how closely state lawmakers corresponded with her.

Many of Haley’s supporters, while praising Scott, said the former governor should have taken tougher positions in the state than Scott did and fought through tougher campaigns.

“Tim has never had to piss anyone off,” said South Carolina State Representative Nathan Ballentine, a supporter of Haley.

Haley was a rising star long considered presidential wood, especially for her handling of the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston shooting that killed nine black believers at the hands of a white supremacist. Haley drew national attention — including quite a bit of praise from unlikely allies — for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.

Still, her removal of the Confederate flag may add to her current standing with the state’s GOP voters. Shery Smith, a Sumter County school board member who supports Scott, said she has heard from some voters that she was appalled at her performance. More recently, Smith said some South Carolina conservatives were perplexed by Haley’s invitation to Disney to move thousands of jobs from Florida to South Carolina as DeSantis escalated his feud with the entertainment giant.

“I heard a lot of ‘Are you kidding me?’ … People weren’t happy about it,” she said, adding, “She’s got to have traction in her own home state or she’s not going anywhere.

All eyes are now on the first primary debate next month, which Haley’s supporters say could shake up the field whether or not Trump eventually shows up.

“The debate is going to be the turning point,” Wooten said. “I think the race is going to change drastically in the fall. Right now I think she’s third, fourth, whatever the numbers say today. But I know she’s building a base operation. She’s not worried.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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