SALEM, New Hampshire — Jim Merrill, a respected, seasoned pro in New Hampshire Republican politics, said when he walked into the Salem-Derry Elks Club in the early days of the presidential campaign this spring, he was impressed with the number of people Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina governor, drew to her event.
“It was packed, probably over 250 people, and I thought OK, there’s no campaign infrastructure yet, but she’s getting a good turnout and that is pretty impressive,” Merrill said. He is not working with any campaign this cycle, nor has he endorsed a candidate.
Since then, Merrill said he has seen her in people’s living rooms, doing round tables with small businesses, and in a variety of other settings, which is important in a primary state that has the intimacy of a congressional race.
Merrill says what strikes him most about her approach is that she is aspirational in her messaging, yet has the experience not to wear rose-colored glasses in explaining the country’s current situation.
“I think she’s kind of found this interesting niche where she’s obviously not all doom and gloom but she’s not just all like, ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’” Merrill explained.
Merrill said the best way to explain how voters are reacting to her was how she comes across as well grounded.
“She’s relatable,” he explained. “She’s tough. She’s charming. But there’s a steel there too. I think people realize they’re not just dealing with someone who doesn’t have a backbone.”
In the hours before the second Fox News debate, this one set at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Haley has found herself gaining ground here in the Granite State. She has moved into second place behind former President Donald Trump, with 15% support.
St. Anselm College polling shows she holds a 37-point net positive favorability (65%-28%), second only to Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), something pollster Neil Levesque suggests means she has room to grow her support.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who spends the bulk of his time in Iowa, has seen his support here decline by 18 points since March and now trails Haley with 11% support.
Merrill said the substance she displays at these events is finding a way to thread a needle with New Hampshire voters: “Pay attention to that because when a candidate finds that message, that purpose that strikes a nerve with voters, no matter how far behind they are, things can move quickly.”
In 2007 when then-senator Barack Obama was bucking the Washington Democratic establishment and the apparent inevitability that was then-senator from New York Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, he flailed for a very long time, until suddenly he didn’t.
“Hope and change,” Merrill said bluntly. “That cause, that drawing people together, pretty much changed the trajectory of that campaign.”
In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Haley said she has been consistent with her message and believes it is striking the right tone with voters.
“Stronger and faster from the very beginning,” she said with a broad smile, adding she may have subconsciously been running with that theme all of her professional career, which began when her mom told her if she wanted to see a change in government, she should stop shouting in the wind and do something about it.
“I had complained to my mom, in our family business, about how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for government to take it and my mom to my great surprise said quit complaining about it and do something about it,” she explained.
Haley said she was so politically green she didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to run against a 30-year incumbent in a primary. “I truly didn’t. And ignorance is bliss because once I realized he was related to half the district, the only option was to win.”
Haley explained that her husband Michael got in the driver’s seat, she got in the passenger seat, they put their two little ones in the back seat, and she started knocking on doors.
“I basically said, ‘Look, no disrespect to the incumbent, but I think we have way too many lawyers at the state house and they need a really good accountant.’ And we were off to the races, but I had not been politically active in school or outside of that or anything at all. It was just feeling like it was a problem and I needed to go in there and fix it for myself,” she said.
A couple of decades later, with no disrespect to former President Trump, whom many voters view as the Republican incumbent, she is running again, only this time for a much bigger office in a much bigger arena, a race her husband Michael encouraged her to enter.
Haley explained her husband, a major in the South Carolina National Guard who recently left for a year-long deployment to Djibouti in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, was the last person she saw and talked to before she walked onstage to make the announcement.
“He’s just always been home base for me. When I’m going through something it’s always good to talk with him about things,” she said, adding, “He’s also one that kind of keeps me levelheaded. He makes sure that I don’t take something too far, or he makes sure that I stay true to who I am, and he keeps me grounded.”
If she is successful in the primary contest she would be the first Gen X presidential candidate and first female Republican presidential nominee. Right now, though, she said she is focusing on the task at hand, winning the primary.
Merrill said what makes Haley appealing to New Hampshire voters is that she has governing experience and she is not hesitant to call out or stand up to the Democratic or Republican status quo.
“I think she’s hitting different people in different ways. They want someone tough, they want someone empathetic, they want someone willing to rumble, and they want someone who can reach their hand out,” explained Merrill.
During the last debate in Milwaukee late last month, Haley and DeSantis were the favorites among the 60 or so voters watching the debate at a western Pennsylvania tavern. They had all voted for Trump but were eager to move on. Her answers on abortion and foreign policy earned her their support.
Merrill said while Trump remains the hands-down favorite in the Granite State right now, he warns political junkies that we are nowhere near the January finish line here.
“There are so many twists and turns that can happen between now and then, January is a lifetime away in American politics,” he said.
“There’s evidence that people are interested in her, last night after the St. Anselm’s survey came out showing her at 15. I got a text from a woman I know who runs an antique store in downtown Manchester who had reached out to me a few months ago saying if I heard Tim Scott was coming to the state she’d love to go,” he said.
After the woman’s fruitless attempt to reach the Scott campaign, Merrill said, nothing came of it.
“And then out of the blue she called me last night and said, ‘Hey, if there’s anything with Nikki Haley, I’d love to go see Nikki Haley,’” he said.
Merrill said this is anecdotal but noteworthy. “It not only shows that Haley is making headway, it serves as a reminder, voters change their mind and who is leading today might not be leading three months from now.”