Nikki Haley Seeks an Iowa Surge as the Last G.O.P. Moderate in the Race

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“Amen,” said Heather, an attorney, standing next to me.

Haley told the crowd to ignore the polls and the media, then went on to cite a Wall Street Journal poll that showed Trump beating Biden by only a margin of error, with her beating Biden by seventeen points. Haley is often understood as the last remaining moderate in the race, even if her politics would have made her a hard-liner in a previous version of the Party: she first came onto the national scene as a Tea Party candidate. Nonetheless, Iowans I met on the trail often told me things like, “I like that Haley’s not as far over, that she knows how to compromise. She’s a little more compassionate,” Ashley, a stay-at-home mom, said. Joedy, a veteran and former police officer, told me that he and his wife “enjoyed Trump’s four years, but we’re ready to move on. So it’s basically between her and DeSantis. We care about: economy, military, border.”

Later in the day, Haley gave an abbreviated stump speech at Field Day Brewing Company, in North Liberty. She posed for photos while “Woman in the White House” by Sheryl Crow played. “Haley’s kind of the default vote against Trump,” an Iowa City resident who usually caucuses with the Democrats but planned to register as a Republican ahead of the event, told me. DeSantis ads played on the brewery’s muted TVs during the commercial break while Haley spoke. Sununu, in a New Hampshire ski windbreaker, was leaning against the bar, drinking an I.P.A. “Nobody’s going to a Trump rally saying, ‘Hey, I was for Nikki Haley, but now I’m with you,’ ” he told me. “It’s a one-way street. Everybody’s coming to Nikki.” He went on, “The emperor has no clothes.”

At another event, an hour farther east, in Bettendorf, a guy with a Nikki button written in Hebrew script was circulating, trying to show people his book “Make America Kosher Again.” He had a bag full of red yarmulkes emblazoned with the candidate’s name. “I gave some to the campaign, and now they have them,” he told me.

A man named Dave, who works for John Deere, wore Ukrainian and Georgian Legion patches. “I support Nikki because she supports Ukraine,” he said. We were joined by Vitaly, who came to Iowa from Ukraine ten years ago. “I work with rich people who want to get green cards,” he told me. He’d come with several friends from Ukraine, who also live nearby. “Haley feels like someone here in Bettendorf, who tells the ladies, Come here, gather ’round,” one said.

“I’m a Republican, but I listen to NPR,” Camron, a 911 dispatcher standing next to me said. “I’m one of the few people in this country who still loves Mitt Romney.” As Haley walked out, the first bars of “Eye of the Tiger” played—again—and Camron shouted, “We love you, Governor Haley!”

Her standard closing line is about how our best days are yet to come, but before delivering it she tried out a new self-mythology: “With me, you will get a transparent happy warrior that goes out and fights to cut waste all the time.”

Pundits say it’s not up to Iowa to pick the winner of the election but, rather, to narrow the field. Haley’s strong showing raises the sudden possibility that she, and not DeSantis, might emerge as the last challenger to Trump standing. Still, Iowa’s evangelical voters have stuck with Trump, giving him a comfortable margin in the polls. While Trump bashed her as a globalist, Haley was at the Embassy Club in downtown Des Moines to talk to Run GenZ, an organization that recruits “conservative trailblazers” to pursue public office. In town halls and ads, Haley often pitches herself as part of a “new generation,” but this was the first time I’d seen her talking to the generations that would come after her.

In a ballroom on the thirty-fourth floor, young men in blazers sat at round white tables with votive candles, scrolling on their phones and swirling cocktails, waiting for dinner to start. The Haley campaign had seated reporters around the periphery of the dinner, under firm instructions not to mingle with diners. My chair was so close to the table in front of me that I ended up in the background of their selfies. Haley walked in wearing knee-high boots and a black shirtdress, joined by Sununu. Their back-and-forth, framed as campaign tips and advice to young candidates, consisted of remarks such as “be genuine” (Sununu) and “push through the fear . . . trust your gut” (Haley). “I like to be normal,” Haley said. “I like to have fun.”

When Haley delivers her stump speech, she can reliably pause for her laugh and applause lines. “I started doing the books for the family business when I was thirteen. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that was child labor!” Here, she gave the cues but didn’t get the reactions; people at the tables in my line of sight were scrolling on their phones as she spoke.

After the introductory prayer, I talked to Caleb Hanna, one of Run GenZ’s founders, who, when he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates, was among both the youngest elected officials in the country and the youngest African-American state legislators ever elected. “My campaign slogan is ‘God, guns, and babies’—but I’m also a big free-market, capitalist guy.” He went on, “I gained respect for Haley after this evening, but I’m still for Trump.” At the end of the event, Aaron Miller, who wore a red tuxedo and is a county commissioner in Tennessee, told me that it was useful to hear from an establishment conservative figure like Haley—“she’s been in these positions of power”—but he wouldn’t vote for her. “Because, at the end of the day, I don’t believe her. I believe Trump.”

Haley comes back to Iowa on Tuesday for a last swing of caucus events, with the goal of consolidating her position of first also-ran. One week from the caucus, she dominates the airwaves, far outspending all her opponents on ads in the state. On Wednesday night, she’ll debate DeSantis; Trump, who has refused to participate in any of the debates, will host a rally with Dr. Ben Carson in Davenport. Haley and DeSantis are fighting for second place, hoping that it becomes something greater. ♦

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