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In NH swing, Haley looks for momentum — and consensus — from Republican voters

Josh Rogers
Nikki Haley arrives at a Portsmouth Rotary Club meeting, Sept. 21, 2023.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley used the first stops on her two-day trip to New Hampshire to stress that supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russia is vital to America’s national security, emphasize that the GOP’s future needn’t involve Donald Trump, and suggest that abortion policies don’t have to be a pitched battle.

“We have to humanize this issue,” Haley — who calls herself “unapologetically pro-life” — told a meeting of the Portsmouth Rotary Club Thursday. “I am not going to be part of demonizing this issue. It’s too personal to everyone. And the fellas have done that for too long, no offense.”

Finding consensus on abortion and Ukraine — even among her fellow Republicans — may be a tall order for Haley as she tries to break out of the pack of candidates trailing Trump for the party's 2024 presidential nomination. So too may be her call for Republicans to jettison Trump altogether. When a voter asked Haley how history would judge Trump, Haley — who served as ambassador to the United Nations under Trump — gave a mixed answer, calling him “the right president at the right time” but also “thin-skinned and easily distracted.”

Haley’s approach — embracing what seem like traditional conservative policy views, but with a less sharp edge than some other 2024 GOP candidates — went over well with several in the audience at stops in Bedford and Portsmouth.

“There are a lot of issues that other politicians don’t know how to deal with,” Wayne Semprini, a former GOP chairman, said after listening to Haley in Portsmouth Thursday. “She’s a sharp gal.”

Semprini said he’s yet to decide who he’ll back in the Republican primary, but said it could be Haley. He is not alone. A UNH poll this week put Haley in third place, behind Trump and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

“She’s got a lot of good points; she could be the Republican nominee,” said Peter Weeks, a former Portsmouth mayor who was also in the crowd to hear Haley.

But Haley’s brand of Republicanism, which hews close to norms established well before the rise of Trump — fiscal discipline, muscular foreign policy, and traditional family values — isn't always a natural fit in today’s GOP.

During a breakfast event in Bedford Thursday, Haley was challenged over her support for Ukraine. Haley called U.S. aid to Ukraine a “small price to pay” to prevent the possibility of direct U.S. military involvement.

Haley also argued that President Biden could have ended the war in Ukraine by pushing for that country’s membership in NATO.

“Because Russia has never invaded a NATO country, it would have caused Putin to say, we’ve got to look for an exit strategy,” she said.

Plenty of Republicans in the room were skeptical of those arguments. Some cheered when Steve Kenda, a Bedford businessman, questioned Haley’s position on Ukraine.

Haley, in turn, suggested Kenda was making claims based on “Russian misinformation.”

“What Russia is spreading all over the internet about this war is really concerning,” Haley said

Kenda was unpersuaded.

“It is hard to know what is misinformation these days,” Kenda said to reporters afterwards. “But it just does not seem to be a good use of our kids’ and grandchildren’s money, to be working in Ukraine.”

Haley is slated to deliver a speech outlining her economic platform Friday at St. Anselm College. Among the policies she’s expected to propose is elimination of the federal gas tax.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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