LACONIA, N.H. — Former president Donald Trump entered Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary here on the cusp of bringing the race for the Republican nomination to a startlingly early conclusion and steamrolling the dwindling resistance within the party to a rematch against President Biden.
New Hampshirites are heading to the polls as the anti-Trump constituency within the Republican Party confronts what could amount to a last stand. Another decisive win for Trump could sew up the nomination and force the sole remaining alternative, Nikki Haley, into a difficult reckoning over the future of her campaign. But a surprise upset in the state could upend the one-on-one race.
Trump reached for that impression of unity and finality by concluding his campaign here Monday alongside his former rivals turned allies. Also-rans Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy joined him onstage in a demonstration of how the field has rapidly consolidated behind him. The barbs they traded were instantly buried — Ramaswamy, whom Trump called “not MAGA,” he now called a “dynamo”; Scott, who had questioned Trump’s electability, now led a chant of “four more years” — as Trump focused his fire on Haley, his former U.N. ambassador.
“Twelve years of Trump!” a man in the crowd shouted.
“You’re right,” Trump laughed. “Don’t say that too loud. … You know they love to call me a fascist.”
But even as he sought to hit some unifying notes, some of the most polarizing parts of his platform were evident. As Trump concluded, cued by theme music associated with the QAnon extremism movement, someone in the crowd shouted, “Free the J6ers!” referring to people charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump pointed and said, “We will.” He went on to refer to the defendants as “hostages,” as he has been doing in speeches since December.
An hour’s drive south, in Salem, Haley made her closing pitch to a packed hotel ballroom, arguing that she is the only Republican who can decisively defeat Biden in November and deliver a strong mandate and down-ballot GOP victories.
“Republicans have lost the last seven out of eight popular votes for president, and that is nothing to be proud of,” she said. “We should want to win the majority of Americans — but the only way we’re going to do that is if we elect a new generational conservative leader.”
Someone in the audience yelled: “That’s Nikki!” The crowd erupted in applause.
Her chief surrogate here, Gov. Chris Sununu (R), also emphasized weariness with losses he blamed on Trump, and he attacked both Trump, 77, and Biden, 81, for their ages. Voters here frequently mention Haley’s age as one of their reasons for supporting her — and Haley has made that a point in her campaign, calling for term limits and mental competency tests.
“They want that change instead of settling for these two octogenarians or whatever,” Sununu said. “Now we’re just a stone’s throw away from doing what nobody thought was possible — and that’s delivering Donald Trump a loss in the first primary of the country.”
Haley also recognized Don Bolduc, the 2022 Republican Senate nominee and election denier who previously endorsed her and lost to incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), to show support across the ideological spectrum.
“He’s as conservative as they get. And then you have Chris Sununu, who’s a moderate,” she said. “We’ve got everybody.”
But after bullishly projecting an outright victory in recent weeks, Haley and Sununu shifted to lowering expectations after she finished third in last week’s Iowa caucuses and the second-place finisher, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, dropped out and endorsed Trump.
“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Haley said in interview with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum in Franklin, N.H., on Monday. “We don’t believe in coronations in this country. We believe in democracy. I’m in this for the long haul.”
The Biden campaign is also looking ahead to a rematch. It has been hosting events marking the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion until it was overturned in 2022. Speaking in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, Biden and Vice President Harris are expected to emphasize Trump’s role in appointing the justices who voted to overturn Roe and the effect on access to emergency care, medication abortion and contraception.
“He intended for them to take away your freedoms,” Harris said Monday in Big Bend, Wisc. “And it is a decision he brags about.”
Biden is not on the ballot in Tuesday’s Democratic primary because the Democratic National Committee made South Carolina the party’s first official primary, but a technically unaffiliated write-in campaign is aiming to overcome a handful of long-shot challengers.
Trump’s team is hoping for a show of force in Tuesday’s results to shut down the primary early and start stockpiling money for a long slog against Biden. The campaign brought up high-ranking Republicans from Haley’s home state of South Carolina to discourage her from staying in the race until the primary there Feb. 24. A Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media said the campaign would “make it miserable” for Haley as long as she stays in the race.
“If you want the race to be over tomorrow, let me hear you scream!” Scott said as he worked the crowd.
A Trump adviser reached out to DeSantis to offer an open invitation to campaign with the former president, but there is nothing planned yet.
New Hampshire is known for surprises, but polls have shown a stable race. A Washington Post-Monmouth University poll completed before DeSantis’s withdrawal found 52 percent support for Trump and 34 percent for Haley. The survey found that Haley led with independent voters, who are allowed to vote in this state’s Republican primary, but that those voters said they were less motivated to participate.
Turning out such voters has largely fallen to Americans For Prosperity Action, the political arm of the network of conservative groups backed by billionaire Charles Koch. With the official Haley campaign lacking a state director here until October, AFP Action stepped in as her de facto field operation since endorsing her on Nov. 28.
The group has since fielded 100 to 150 canvassers and made 630,000 contacts at doors and over the phone, working to grow the electorate by turning out a pool of some 20,000 people who have voted in general elections but not primaries. Senior adviser Greg Moore said marginal voters tend to be less highly engaged and decide late. The group’s projected turnout, a record 330,000 to 340,000, would be more than double the last nonpresidential primary, in 2022, and more than three times the participation in the Iowa caucuses, in a state with about half the total population.
New Hampshire Secretary of State David M. Scanlan has predicted a record Republican primary turnout of 322,000.
In Manchester on Monday, Jo-An Provencher answered an AFP door-knocker after putting her grandson to sleep, and she smiled at the sight of Haley literature. Provencher said she was supporting Haley despite concerns about her position on raising the Social Security retirement age and despite some continued appreciation for Trump.
“I do like Trump,” she said. “But my main concern, they attacked him too much, and the chaos would remain.
“Do I always like him as a person? No,” she added with a shake of her head. “I like what he stood for. He’s been hammered. I hope they don’t hammer her too.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s results, Trump and his allies began baselessly undermining the legitimacy of the state’s long-standing and completely legal practice of allowing unaffiliated voters in party primaries. “You have a crazy election,” Trump said Monday.
“Ron DeSantis, at least, had the smarts to say, I’m packing up and going back to Florida,” Kari Lake, a Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona who is an active Trump surrogate, said in an interview Monday. Of Haley, Lake said, “She’s going to get a rude awakening part 2 tomorrow.”
Ahead of Trump’s speech here, a handful of Haley and DeSantis yard signs dotted a snowbank as wheeled carts selling Trump gear rolled along a line of supporters stretching down the block of a lakefront hotel.
“You’re going to end the Republican primary in 2024,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said to warm up the crowd Monday. “This is a referendum on the Republican Party, and I am counting on you to bring it.
The speech was repeatedly interrupted by fossil fuel protesters, leading to escalating taunts from Trump and the crowd, and at least one injury of unclear severity to a bystander caught in the shuffle. Multiple attendees collapsed from dehydration while leaving the cramped and stuffy room.