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GOP candidate Nikki Haley attracts more attention from New Hampshire voters

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As the New Hampshire primary approaches - there's less than three weeks to go - the GOP candidate attracting a lot of attention is Nikki Haley. The former governor from South Carolina has been making regular campaign stops in the state for months. But these days, many of those events are standing room only. NHPR's Todd Bookman reports on who's showing up for her rallies and why.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: The parking lot attendants were overmatched - car after car pouring into a country club parking lot in the coastal town of Rye, N.H., earlier this week to see Nikki Haley.

AMY KENNEDY: I am leaning strongly towards her. I want to see her in person, see how she does.

BOOKMAN: Amy Kennedy and her husband live in nearby Northampton. Like a lot of people here, they're looking for an alternative to Donald Trump. In Haley, they see a fresh choice.

KENNEDY: I think we need a younger, more dynamic government.

BOOKMAN: Why is that important to you?

KENNEDY: Because I think the group we have isn't doing a good job.

BOOKMAN: And that's a message that 51-year-old Haley hammers in her stump speech - that Washington has become too gray, too entrenched, too disconnected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: Right now, Congress has become the most privileged nursing home in the country. These are people making decisions on our national security. These are people making decisions on the future of our economy. It's nothing to play with. We need to know that we've got people at the top of their game.

BOOKMAN: Haley reached the top of South Carolina politics as governor and then was appointed by Trump to be U.N. ambassador. Her pitch to voters focuses heavily on foreign policy, national security and the country's budget. But increasingly, she's also ramping up attacks against Trump, trying to calibrate them in a way that will satisfy anti-Trump voters while not alienating those who still like the former president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALEY: You know I'm right. Chaos follows him, and we can't be a country in disarray in a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos because we won't survive it.

(APPLAUSE)

HALEY: You don't fix Democrat chaos with Republican chaos.

BOOKMAN: What Haley is describing is on the minds of plenty of voters, including Annie Sorrentino from the town of New Boston. She attended an earlier rally and says neither administration, Trump or Biden, accomplished much for the average American.

ANNIE SORRENTINO: I'm really sick of the old, old. I'm in the middle class, and I'm tired of getting squashed.

BOOKMAN: Sorrentino is a registered Republican, but four years ago, she voted for Biden. This time around, Sorrentino hasn't committed to Haley but says she's already crossed off Biden, Trump and Chris Christie. Other first-time GOP contenders like Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continue to campaign in New Hampshire. The bigger the field, the less likely any one of these candidates defeats Donald Trump here. And so Haley and her backers, including New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, want this to appear as a binary choice - Haley v. Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS SUNUNU: We're narrowing this field down. We've effectively made this. This is a one-on-one race now.

BOOKMAN: Bob Brackett has watched the field winnow. He's the kind of voter who relishes this time of year in New Hampshire. He says he's impressed with Haley. He says she's been the strongest on foreign policy and is the best candidate to beat Trump.

BOB BRACKETT: The last two or three weeks is what makes, you know, a campaign. The fact that Governor Sununu has come out in her support, I think, is crucial. I actually think that there's going to be a run for the roses for this thing.

BOOKMAN: Who Republican voters give their rose to come primary day on January 23 won't finalize the nomination, but it will show if Haley's momentum is real or just the wishful thinking of independent and GOP voters who oppose Trump.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, N.H.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "COMING OF AGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.