As former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley took the stage at CNN’s town hall in New Hampshire, her chief rival in the state’s primary took to another interview on Fox News.
It was yet another bit of counter-programming on the part of Trump, as well as Fox News, which billed Sean Hannity’s interview as the former president’s first since his victory in the Iowa caucuses. Last week, as Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis participated in CNN’s pre-Iowa debate, Fox News did a town hall with Trump.
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Shortly after Haley took the stage, host Jake Tapper asked Haley about Trump’s dog whistle attacks on her, including advancing a conspiracy theory that questioned her eligibility to be president as the child of Indian immigrants. Trump also referred to her as “Nimrada,” misspelling her given first name, Nimarata, clearly reviving birtherism and the “otherness” of his opponents.
Haley didn’t condemn Trump’s remarks, but dismissed them. “The name calling: I know President Trump well. That is what he does when he feels threatened.”
On Fox News, Trump was in friendly territory.
“I love the state of New Hampshire. I love the people of New Hampshire. I don’t like their primary system for one reason: They have what’s called an open primary. Already we know that nearly 4,000 Democratic voters have switched affiliation to undeclared, meaning independent, ahead of the primary,” Hannity said, setting some expectations for next week. “Does that system bother you?”
Trump said, “It bothers me. The governor should have done something about it instead of talking and wasting his time with Nikki because she is not going to make it. She has got no chance. She has got no way. MAGA is not going to be with her.” He was referring to Governor Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley.
“Who has a system where Democrats are allowed to vote in a Republican primary?”
The Haley vs. Trump face off was just the latest twist in networks’ battle to secure viewers in a primary race that could be wrapped up in a matter of weeks, not months. ABC News and WMUR-TV were to host a pre-New Hampshire debate on Thursday night, but Haley, coming off a third-place finish in Iowa, declined to participate in the event unless Trump did. In the dwindling field, that left only DeSantis to participate, and ABC on Tuesday canceled the event, at a cost that was estimated in the millions, according to Puck. But there also is plenty of suspicion at ABC News, given how quickly CNN swooped in and scheduled a Haley town hall for the same evening once the schedule was clear. CNN also dropped plans for its own debate, which was to be held on Sunday.
With the focus solely on her, Haley is facing a much easier night than she would have in a debate, where DeSantis attacked her continuously last week during the pre-Iowa debate over the span of two hours.
A number of pundits have criticized Haley’s decision to forgo the New Hampshire debates as akin to the move of a frontrunner, even though most polls still show her behind Trump in the Granite State and she finished third in Iowa.
In New Hampshire, she is trying to thread a needle — not Trump but also not anti-Trump. “You don’t fix Democrat chaos with Republican chaos,” Haley said.
At the town hall, she continued to criticize Trump for driving up the debt and for praising Chinese President Xi Jinping. She also pushed back on Trump’s claim that presidents need absolute immunity.
“There needs to be accountability. No one is above the law,” she said.
Haley has stepped up her criticism of the former president, but it’s still far from the scathing way that Chris Christie went after Trump. Before he dropped out, Christie had focused on Trump’s unfitness for office. In audio captured by hot mic before he dropped out, Christie said that Haley would get “smoked” in the race and “she’s not up to this.”
Haley reiterated that she would pardon the former president, but only if he is found guilty.
“When you talk about a pardon, someone has already been found guilty. But for me, the last thing we need is an 80-year-old president sitting in jail, because that is just going to further divide our country,” she said. “This is no longer about whether he is innocent or guilty. This is about how do we bring the country back together.”
She also addressed a remark she made earlier in the week, that America “has never been a racist country.”
Noting that protections for the institution of slavery were written into the U.S. Constitution, among other things, Tapper asked, “As a historical matter, do you think America has never been a racist country?”
“I was a brown girl that grew up in a small rural town. We had plenty of racism that we had to deal with. But my parents never said that we lived in a racist country. And I am so thankful that they didn’t. Because for every black and brown child out there, if you tell them that they live or are born in a racist country, you are immediately telling them that they don’t have a chance.”
“I think it is important that we tell our kids, America is not perfect. We have our stains. We know that. But our goal should always be to make today better than yesterday,” she added.
She made a point of casting herself as not just the alternative to Trump but to Biden. “Right now, do we really want to have two 80-year-olds running for president?”
The trouble for Haley is that in bypassing the New Hampshire debate, and replacing it with a much more standard town hall, she may have bypassed the chance for a high profile media moment.
As veteran political adviser Mike Murphy wrote on Substack, “New Hampshire loves a scrappy underdog and a debate like that would tee NH up to do what the Granite State voters love to do most. Cut an arrogant front-runner down to size. Ask Barrack Obama. Ask George W. Bush. Ask LBJ. New Hampshire is not the Granite State, it is the Punisher state. But the good voters there need a story, a first and second act to build up to its climax. Life, imitates art.”
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