MANCHESTER, N.H. — Nikki Haley, treating the primary as a one-on-one race with Donald Trump, has stepped up her criticism of the former president, lobbing pointed attacks on his age in a one-two punch against him and President Biden, yet still holding back on the full offensive many Trump critics wish she would launch.
At town halls, in television ads and during media interviews in recent days, Haley has repeatedly pointed to Trump’s age, 77, as an attack line. “The majority of Americans think that having two 80-year-olds running for president is not what they want,” she said at a campaign stop Tuesday in Bretton Woods. On Wednesday in Rochester, she accused Trump of throwing a “temper tantrum.”
The comments mark a rhetorical sharpening for a candidate who mostly stuck to more implicit contrasts involving competency tests and calls for a new generation of leadership before the race moved to a state with many anti-Trump Republican primary voters. But some Trump critics are frustrated that Haley hasn’t hit Trump harder and complain that she isn’t barnstorming the state aggressively enough in the final days before the first-in-the-nation primary next week.
“It’s part of why I’m still struggling with the Haley campaign and why I just don’t see any evidence that she’s connecting, especially with the unaffiliated voters who she needs to turn out in droves,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who is vehemently opposed to Trump and wishes his rivals would have called him out far earlier on issues such as his first criminal indictment. “I just don’t see any evidence that that’s going to happen.”
This week, Haley is scheduled to have one public event per day in New Hampshire. Her first official event here after coming in third in the Iowa caucuses was held Tuesday night at a luxury hotel in the northern part of the state during a snowstorm — a move that puzzled Cullen.
Haley flew home to South Carolina late Tuesday night to see her father, who had been hospitalized.
She did media interviews and unannounced retail stops in the state on Tuesday, snapping photos with voters at a diner and a candy store.
After his decisive win in Iowa, Trump has also refocused his attention on Haley, who poses the biggest threat to his sizable lead in New Hampshire. He is portraying her disparagingly as a globalist who would get the United States into wars overseas and has noted she is backed by corporate interests such as the political network of the industrialist billionaire Charles Koch. He has also accused her of being insufficiently conservative on border security and immigration.
Trump argued Wednesday night in Portsmouth that Haley is “counting on Democrats and liberals to infiltrate your Republican primary.”
He inaccurately claimed that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley, is “allowing Democrats to come in and vote” in the New Hampshire primary. But the state’s laws, which were in place long before Sununu took office, only allow independent voters in New Hampshire to cast a ballot in either party’s primary.
To cast a ballot in the GOP primary, Democrats had to change their party registration by the state’s Oct. 6 deadline last year, and fewer than 4,000 did so. New Hampshire voters who have not registered to vote before are permitted to on Election Day at their polling place if they show proof of residency.
In many ways, the New Hampshire primary has effectively become a head-to-head race. Two debates planned for this week were canceled because Haley said she would only attend if Trump, who has refused to debate at all, also showed up. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has a much smaller footprint and much lower poll numbers here as he looks ahead to next month’s contest in South Carolina, Haley’s home state.
A Boston Globe/Suffolk University/NBC-10 Boston poll released Wednesday found Trump with 50 percent support among likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters, followed by Haley with 34 percent and DeSantis a distant third with 5 percent.
Sarah Bishop, 28, a veterinarian, attended a Haley event Wednesday night and said Haley “shouldn’t be afraid” to step up her attacks on Trump. “Ladies don’t start fights, but they can finish them,” she said, citing a line from the 1970 Disney movie “The Aristocats.”
In taking on Trump more aggressively, Haley joins a long list of Republicans who over the years have struggled to find the right time and tone for attacking Trump in a party in which he has many loyal supporters. But Haley’s campaign is betting on her performing well with the less-ideological, more-independent-minded voters in New Hampshire, especially those desperate for an alternative to Trump. Her aim this week is to convince those voters that she is the one best positioned to stall Trump’s march to the presidential nomination.
Mike Dennehy, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire who helped lead Republican John McCain to victory in the state in 2000 and 2008, said he doesn’t understand the Haley campaign’s strategy to win the state, calling her attacks on Trump “weak” and her one-event-a-day schedule inadequate.
“Man oh man,” he said, with a deep sigh. “It’s frustrating. I just do not see her doing what it takes right now to pull independents out to vote for her.” For the first time in his adult life, he said, he does not know how he’s going to vote next week.
At her event Tuesday night, Haley focused mainly on fiscal responsibility and foreign policy, but she received applause and laughter from the audience when she nodded to Trump’s and Biden’s ages.
Voters are concerned about both candidates’ ages, but it’s more of an issue for Biden, who is 81. Overall, 74 percent of adults say Biden would be too old to serve another term, while 50 percent say that of Trump, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll from September.
At a moment when Haley has been amplifying her arguments that both Trump and Biden are too old to be running the country, the former president spoke at length Wednesday night about how young he feels and boasted about his cognitive abilities. “I feel like I’m about 35 years old. I actually feel better now than I did 30 years ago. Tell me, is that crazy? I feel better now, and I think cognitively I’m better than I was 20 years ago. I don’t know why.”
A television ad running in New Hampshire from the Haley campaign attacks Trump and Biden as “the two most disliked politicians in America” and describes them as “consumed by chaos, negativity and grievances of the past.” Haley is also leaning into her argument that she is more likely than Trump to win a general election.
Cullen, the former state GOP chairman, doesn’t know how he will vote next week. “I’ve seen her on the stump three times,” he said. “I felt like, ‘Hey, I’m available. Close the sale for me.’ Please, Haley, give me a reason to actually vote for you as opposed to just voting for you tactically because you’re our last remaining hope.”
New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who is escorting Haley around the state this week, rejected the idea that Haley needed to sharpen her tone on Trump in New Hampshire.
“I think she’s struck a wonderful balance on it,” Sununu said. “She doesn’t change her tack; she doesn’t change who she is. That’s one thing I really respect about her. She doesn’t tell you what you want to hear.”
Sununu noted that former New Jersey governor Chris Christie tried to engineer a campaign squarely around attacking Trump as unfit for the job of president and that it wasn’t effective. Christie dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.
“People have made up their mind on January 6 and election denialism and all that. Trump is not some unknown commodity. Everyone has an opinion on it,” he said. “Chris’s approach was one message, one state, nuclear option. It doesn’t work.”
Trump told a crowd at an event here Tuesday night that it was a waste of his time to talk about DeSantis but that he did “want to talk about Nikki.”
“If you want a nominee who is endorsed by all the RINOs, globalists, and demented Never Trumpers — the Never Trumpers are a dying breed … then Nikki Haley is your candidate,” Trump said, using a term for “Republican in Name Only.”
DeSantis, in ramping up attacks on Haley ahead of the Iowa caucuses, accused her of angling to be Trump’s vice president.
Trump has said Haley wasn’t “tough enough” when she served as his U.N. ambassador. He often says the people backing her are “pro-amnesty, they’re pro-China, they’re pro-open-borders, these are the people that are backing her, they’re pro-war,” Trump said, referring mostly to Haley’s backing from Americans for Prosperity Action, the political arm of the Koch network.
Haley’s team has dismissed Trump’s attacks as a sign that his campaign is worried about her in New Hampshire, and it said she signed one of the country’s toughest immigration laws in 2011 when she was governor of South Carolina.
SFA Fund, the super PAC backing Haley, has focused on contrast ads in New Hampshire. To date, the group has spent the most in New Hampshire — more than $18 million, according to data from AdImpact. One commercial says that “Trump is lying about Haley” and paints the race as just between Haley and the former president. That ad also suggests that a vote for Trump is a vote for “chaos.” Another describes Trump as “an 80-year-old name from the past.”
MAGA Inc., the super PAC supporting Trump, which has spent more than $6 million on ads in the state, released an anti-Haley ad about immigration that says she’s “too liberal to fix the border.” Fact-checkers found that the ad took Haley’s words about immigrants out of context and that she was talking broadly about improving the tone around the debate over immigration.
A Trump campaign ad also attacks Haley over the border and compares her position on immigration with Biden’s. The ad says Haley did not support Trump’s efforts to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Haley’s campaign has described the ad as false and pointed out she did support the wall, but only as part of a solution to addressing the country’s immigration problems.
The Trump campaign has pointed to news articles that quote Haley as saying that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States was “un-American” and “unconstitutional.” Haley’s campaign has said that she opposes bans on travelers to the United States based on religion, but highlighted that she defended the revised ban when she was U.N. ambassador.
Former senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who has endorsed Haley, said voters in the state are turned off by Trump, who he said is “wrapped around revenge and actual revenge and anger, but the majority of the party are not of that ilk.
“More importantly, she has delivered a very strong and positive message. It’s upbeat, it’s optimistic. It’s what I think people like. New Hampshire’s never been a state attracted to negative campaigns,” Gregg said. “So I think she’s got a shot at it.”
Dylan Wells in New Hampshire contributed to this report.