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Chris Christie dropped out. Where will his voters turn in the New Hampshire primary?

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, seen through a storefront window, shakes hands with guests while visiting Kay's Bakery and Cafe, during a campaign stop on Friday in Hampton, N.H.
Charles Krupa
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AP
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, seen through a storefront window, shakes hands with guests while visiting Kay's Bakery and Cafe, during a campaign stop on Friday in Hampton, N.H.

When former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination last week at a town hall event in Windham, N.H., Norm Olsen was there. And Olsen knew immediately who would get his vote.

"It was very clear: If it wasn't him, it was going to be Nikki," he said. "So I didn't get to ponder it very long."

That's exactly what former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is hoping for. She's counting on a big day in next week's New Hampshire primary. But if she's going to catch up to former President Donald Trump, she'll need the support of voters who previously backed Chris Christie.

Voters like Olsen, who hosted a meet-and-greet with about 30 people for Christie at his home in Portsmouth shortly before Christmas. The Republican appreciated that Christie was the only candidate in the GOP primary race willing to say what he felt needed to be said about Trump.

Christie leaving the race is widely seen as a boon for Haley, who benefits from New Hampshire allowing undeclared voters to vote in the Republican primary. Olsen says his Christie-backing friends have largely shifted to Haley.

"Well, out of ten people that I know, eight of them were about as quick as I was to go to Nikki," he said. "And two of them haven't made up their mind yet. That's just the folks I know."

Olsen quipped that he knows his isn't a scientific study, but a more scientific University of New Hampshire poll, taken before Christie dropped out, found that 65% of Christie voters had Haley as their second choice.

Christie pointedly didn't endorse anyone when he left the race. In fact, he was critical of Haley for saying that if Trump is the nominee she would support him, even if convicted of a crime. Rather than openly court Christie voters, on the campaign trail Haley refers to the New Hampshire primary as a "two-person race" with Trump.

Catherine Johnson calls herself a super volunteer for Chris Christie. The registered Democrat is now attending events for Nikki Haley since Christie dropped out.
/ Tamara Keith/NPR
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Tamara Keith/NPR
Catherine Johnson calls herself a super volunteer for Chris Christie. The registered Democrat is now attending events for Nikki Haley since Christie dropped out.

Hanover resident Catherine Johnson fashioned a role for herself on the Chris Christie presidential campaign that was essentially a Walmart greeter but for town halls and candidate meet and greets. She was a super volunteer for the former New Jersey governor. As he crisscrossed the state, she was there with a friendly welcome, and she has the mileage on her car to show for it.

"I'm thinking about 5000 since October," Johnson estimated.

On the day Christie announced his campaign was over, she had already driven about two and a half hours. She was supposed to be manning the mic for the question and answer portion of the event.

"And at the very last second, they had me sit down," she recalled.

There would be no more of Christie's trademark Q and A, and no more of Christie on the campaign trail standing up to Trump — things that Christie did which made Johnson really believe in him. She is a registered Democrat and admits it's kind of weird to be so dedicated to a Republican candidate. But she cried right there at the town hall.

"I knew the campaign was going to come to an end on Jan. 23rd, but I still thought I had two weeks," she said.

Like Johnson, most of the supporters NPR talked to thought Christie would drop out after the New Hampshire primary.

Dawn Hartnett, an IT project manager from Hookset, is an independent who has never voted for a Republican at the national level, but that's about to change. She says she can't stand the chaos of Trump and after Christie dropped out, she attended a Haley event at a small store near her home.

"We really need to get Trump off the ballot," said Hartnett. "She is our last, best chance, but a very good person to vote for. I think she'd do a great job."

Harnett praised Haley's emphasis on term limits and shares her concerns about two elderly men facing off in November.

Corinne Pryor, with her husband, Jeff Pryor at Robie's Country Store in Hooksett, NH. They were there to see Nikki Haley speak alongside N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu who has endorsed Haley.
/ Jeongyoon Han/NPR
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Jeongyoon Han/NPR
Corinne Pryor, with her husband, Jeff Pryor at Robie's Country Store in Hooksett, NH. They were there to see Nikki Haley speak alongside N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu who has endorsed Haley.

But not everyone is ready to commit to Haley. Former Christie-backer Corinne Pryor has some doubts. Pryor is an undeclared voter and wants to see if Haley can stand up to Trump's Republican party like Christie did.

"Nikki Haley sometimes said it, but not in so many words," she said. "It did feel like it was a little softer landing. He was — Chris Christie — was much more verbal and forthright."

But what she really craves — above Christie's no-nonsense sensibilities — is someone who is a true moderate, and someone who brings the country together. She's wondering if Haley can provide that for her.

"Well, she's... she's more in the middle than Trump is," Pryor said. "If I have to compare, it depends who I'm comparing her to, I guess."

As for Christie super volunteer, Catherine Johnson, she's swapping out the Christie events that she made sure to never miss, for Haley events. But, at the end of the day, she won't budge on her vote.

"I'm going to vote for Governor Christie on a write-in ticket for the Democratic New Hampshire primary," she said. "And then I'm going to spend the rest of the day driving anybody who needs a ride to the poll."

The first person she'll drop off: her 91-year-old mother.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Jeongyoon Han
[Copyright 2024 NPR]