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The third GOP debate could be pivotal for Nikki Haley

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters after signing papers to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot at the New Hampshire Statehouse on Oct. 13 in Concord, N.H.
Michael Dwyer
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley greets supporters after signing papers to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot at the New Hampshire Statehouse on Oct. 13 in Concord, N.H.

LONDONDERRY, N.H. - At a recent campaign stop, Nikki Haley opened with a gutsy move - asking New Hampshire voters who'd crowded into a small diner straight-up if they were ready to support her.

"Who has decided who they're gonna be with?" Haley asked, receiving a feeble pitter-patter of applause.

"Really, that's all?" she asked, undeterred. "I've got that much work to do?"

Haley was campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination last week alongside New Hampshire's Republican governor, Chris Sununu. Sununu has yet to endorse anyone - and recently extended the same campaigning courtesy to another candidate, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis - but he's made it clear he wants a nominee who is not Donald Trump.

For the five candidates who've qualified, Wednesday's Republican presidential debate in Florida is mostly about the fight to be seen as a viable alternative to Trump, who remains the clear frontrunner.

And it could be a make-or-break moment, particularly for Haley. The former South Carolina governor and Trump's former United Nations Ambassador has been showing stronger-than-expected potential in some of the early-voting states.

'Fresh brains'

Almost by definition, most voters who come to Republican primary campaign events in these days are at least open to the idea of someone other than Trump as the party's nominee.

In Londonderry, David Balchunis, 70, says inflation has kept him from retiring, so he's still working as a bartender.

"I don't have a choice," he said.

Balchunis usually votes for Republicans, but wouldn't vote for Trump again. He hopes other New Hampshire voters agree.

"I'm way over that," Balchunis said. "He's had his time. Let's get some fresh brains and fresh ideas and go from there."

At Haley's next stop, in Nashua, Terry Cates had similar feelings.

"I think he needs to go. He's had his time and he's more of a distraction for the country," she said.

Cates says she and her husband live part-time in Florida, and they love DeSantis.

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

The battle to stand out

DeSantis had been widely seen as the strongest potential rival to Trump. But there are signs that Haley may be moving more and more into that role.

Late last month, a Des Moines Register pollshowed Haley tying with DeSantis in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. She's also been showing strength in New Hampshire.

Former Republican strategist Rick Wilson says DeSantis has been a disappointment to some major Republican donors.

"[They thought], he'll be Trump without the craziness," Wilson said. "It turns out he was Trump without the charisma."

Wilson thinks some of those donors are now eyeing Haley.

Fighting a 'cult following'

Republican pollster Jon McHenry with North Star Opinion Research says if Haley can make a very strong showing in the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, she could still have at least a theoretical - albeit narrow - path to the nomination.

"It's not overly likely," McHenry cautioned, "given the sort of the cult like following [Trump] seems to have among some primary voters."

"But I do think Gov. Haley has probably the best shot of the rest of the field," he added.

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 even with an appetite among some Republicans for a Trump alternative, Rick Wilson says candidates still have to contend with the party's pro-Trump base.

"What is their most powerful immune response?" Wilson says. "Anyone who attacks Trump must be destroyed."

While Haley has traded barbs with DeSantis, she's largely avoided going after the frontrunner. But at some point, if Haley wants to win, she will have to take on Trump directly.

"And the base will destroy her," Wilson preidcted.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.