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RYE, N.H. – Nikki Haley asked the question four times on Wednesday, in four different cities. It got the best response, a mixture of groans and murmurs, at a “No BS Barbecue” hosted by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
“Anybody know about Dylan Mulvaney?” Haley asked, testing the crowd’s awareness of the trans influencer who sparked a nationwide conservative boycott of Bud Light after she posted about how the brand’s marketing team had mailed her a customized beer can. “Make no mistake, that is a guy dressed up like a girl mocking women. Women do not act like that. And you've got these companies glorifying it.”
The repeated riff was meant to be the applause line for one of the top candidates running on their ability to win back moderates in the suburbs who have fled the Republican Party in the Donald Trump era.
Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who both stumped in New Hampshire this week as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis entered the race at a solid no. 2 spot, are trying to position themselves as the GOP’s most electable options — non-white, Generation Xers who Democrats are scared to run against.
Haley is best known nationally for bringing together Democrats and Republicans to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after a white supremacist massacred Black churchgoers. Scott is highly regarded in the Senate by members of both parties, and his lesser-known signature issue — tax credits for “Opportunity Zones” — has bipartisan roots even as it was enacted in Trump’s party-line tax law.
Critical to their pitch: The idea that they can grow the party’s tent by speaking to voters who are not invested in the same inward-looking grievances that the MAGA wing has elevated since Trump took over.
“We need a president who persuades not just our friends and our base,” Scott said in his announcement speech this week. “We need a president that persuades.”
The two candidates are almost invariably described in press reports as “sunny” or “upbeat” or “optimistic” in contrast to the raging Trump or scowling DeSantis, who are typically portrayed as hardliners devoted to firing up their own base with doom and gloom warnings of leftist subversion.
In Rye, at the end of a day when multiple voters asked how Haley distinguished herself from the field, she cited her personal favorable ratings in South Carolina and nationally. “If you look at the polling,” she said, “I have the least negatives of anybody in the race, and I’m the most likely to win a general election.”
On the trail though, Scott and Haley’s differences from the frontrunners are often more tell than show. In key ways, they’re leaning into some of the same tendencies and topics.
In a Thursday visit with the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, Scott handed out roses to attendees and told his personal story, growing from a kid “as lost as a goose in a rainstorm” to a senator with an “opportunity agenda” of school choice and fewer government handouts. But his personal story is also continuously framed as a rejoinder to a dangerous leftist movement, who he called “the enemy for the American people” on Fox News last month. And he’s not afraid to engage in culture war topics, telling voters at his event that “transgender ideology is ruining women’s sports” and that he would “stop socially experimenting with the American military.”
On the toughest “persuasion” issue of them all, both candidates have stuck to their consistently anti-abortion record while trying to carve out a little rhetorical running room. Haley has told voters a federal law outlawing abortion is unlikely to ever pass, even if she doesn’t oppose the idea; pressed at a Politics and Eggs breakfast on Wednesday, she said she would sign one “if there’s 60 votes” and it cleared the Senate. Scott struggled with the topic in his campaign run-up, but said he’d back a 20-week federal ban.
Notably, neither candidate did a press gaggle (a free-for-all where the reporters in the room can ask anything) in New Hampshire, but Haley briefly told Fox News that DeSantis was “copying” Trump, citing “the way his hand gestures are” and his synchronicity on Ukraine. Do you care which reporters get to ask questions? Probably not! But it’s odd that these candidates are passing up chances to reach non-MAGA voters through the traditional media given the premise of their campaigns.
What’s clear so far is that the terms of this primary are being set by Trump and DeSantis. The latter’s current signature issue is an ongoing brawl with Disney over its opposition to a bill he boasts banished “woke gender ideology” from the classroom. On Thursday, he attacked Trump for siding with Disney, which he described as “a multinational corporation that wants to sexualize kids."
DeSantis pairs his pitch to the GOP’s most conservative voters with a claim to electability — the scale of his 2022 victory in Florida, a landslide that he credits to his willingness to battle left-wing orthodoxy without apology.
There are still some key differences between the persuaders and the more MAGA wing, especially on foreign policy and the former president’s efforts to overturn the election, even if they’re emphasized less often.
At her stops, when prompted by voters, Haley sketched out three differences between herself and Trump. “He thinks that January 6 was a beautiful day; I think January 6 was a terrible day,” she said in Rye. “He thinks that we don't need to worry about Russia or Ukraine; I think a Ukraine victory is good for American national security. He hasn’t had a problem with spending.”
DeSantis, by contrast, said in his post-announcement interviews that he’d consider pardoning people who participated in Jan. 6 riots, that he wanted a “settlement” between Russia and Ukraine, and that he’d fire Trump-appointed FBI Director Christopher Wray on his first day in the White House.
But the big ideas, about how a post-Biden president would remake the government, were still being driven by Trump, DeSantis, and the conservative media infrastructure that Republicans trust more than traditional TV and newspapers. At the Women for Nikki event, when one voter asked how she’d go about “dismantling the deep state,” Haley accepted the premise, saying that she’d always put “people who understood their consumers” in key government positions.
“I am very aware of a deep state,” she said. “It's not just in D.C., it's in every one of our states.”
Some voters, looking for GOP candidates with broader appeal, preferred another approach.
“I want them to start focusing on the actual issues,” said Catherine Johnson, a former Republican who’d left the party over Trump, but came to a Women for Nikki town hall on Wednesday to see if the former U.N. ambassador could persuade her. “I'm really tired of this talk about critical race theory, the woke agenda, and banning of books. I want to know how well they're gonna solve our problems.”
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
Tone does matter, and some voters I talked to said that they viewed both candidates as inspiring. Mission accomplished, even if the crowds were smaller than the ones expected for DeSantis next week. In the Wall Street Journal, Lance Morrow writes that Scott’s “record is sparse” and his run “isn’t so much his qualifications as statesman or politician,” but his potential appeal to exhausted voters. “The key, rather, is in his temperament—his manifest goodwill.”
- It wasn’t easy to break into the DeSantis/Trump conversation this week, but Haley tried with a proposal to “fix veterans’ healthcare” by forcing members of Congress to get coverage from the Veterans Affairs Administration.