SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa — Fliers at Nikki Haley’s campaign events prominently advertise that she is “pro-life” — yet she draws plenty of voters who support abortion access and sometimes arrive under the mistaken impression the Republican presidential hopeful is “pro-choice.”
The former U.N. ambassador gets applause for calls to end transgender athletes’ participation in women’s sports, which she has called “the women’s issue of our time.” But she couches it in a softer appeal about the need to “grow strong girls” and spends more time on education issues that have more cross-party appeal, lamenting low proficiencies in reading and math to crowds overflowing into hallways and backup seating.
And she fields town hall questions from Republicans asking how she will crack down on election fraud — “it’s a real issue,” she says, despite its rarity — yet also regularly attracts swing voters who backed President Biden in 2020. One woman, an independent who said she will vote for “anybody but Trump,” showed up to a recent Iowa stop with a copy of “The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama.
As Haley hopscotches across Iowa and New Hampshire her events illustrate the balancing act she is attempting in the GOP presidential race, where former president Donald Trump remains the overwhelming polling leader. While Trump vows retribution and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promises to leave some border-crossing drug traffickers “stone cold dead” — appealing to a GOP base eager for partisan combat — Haley has taken a different tone.
She has shown particular strength among centrist and independent voters who could play an influential role in New Hampshire and who often view her as less divisive, open to compromise or more relatable. But she’s also facing attacks from all sides, doubts that her approach can ultimately win the Republican nomination, and accusations that she has tried to have it both ways on key issues.
DeSantis has suggested Haley will “cave” to liberals and assailed her answers on abortion as wishy-washy. Another GOP rival, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, says Haley is tiptoeing around Trump’s faults, even as she critiques the former president’s record and tells her audiences that “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him.”
Meanwhile, many Democrats say they find Haley’s policies just as objectionable as her rivals’ despite her talk of “consensus.” They point to her tea party roots, her conservative views on economics and the U.S.-Mexico border, and the 20-week abortion ban she signed as South Carolina governor.
“You sound like a Democrat sometimes,” a New Hampshire Democratic voter recently told Haley in a moment quickly amplified by the DeSantis campaign. But that same voter grew angry as Haley spoke about making changes to Social Security and walked out during the event, saying he would write in Biden.
Haley’s allies say she’s simply a good messenger for a conservative agenda. “Nikki is fighting for a new generation of conservative leadership. Her broad appeal will grow the party and help Republicans win up and down the ballot,” said Haley campaign spokesman Olivia Perez-Cubas.
A new CBS News/YouGov poll of New Hampshire GOP primary voters shows Haley pulling closer to Trump, with the former president at 44 percent and Haley at 29. It also showed Haley performing especially well among independents and moderates.
Leaning into her appeal to the political middle on the trail, Haley highlights surveys that shows her leading Biden by double digits — 17 percentage points in one recent Wall Street Journal survey. A scoreboard at a Haley event in New Hampshire displayed the numbers: 51-34.
“This isn’t just about the presidency,” she told a crowd here in early December. “This is about winning governorships up and down the ballot. This is about winning Senate seats. This is about winning House seats. This is about a completely different shift to getting our country back on track.”
Haley got a jolt this fall from her debate performances. Once overlooked by competitors, she became a contender for a distant second place in Iowa, the first state in the GOP nominating calendar, and is now Trump’s strongest challenger in New Hampshire. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a moderate Republican and outspoken Trump critic, recently endorsed her.
Amy Fleming, 47, said at a town hall in Clear Lake, Iowa, that she would back Haley but not Trump over Biden in November — and felt Haley was better aligned with her views than DeSantis. She cited abortion as an example. “Because somebody wants to have an abortion — they’re not a bad person,” she said. “I just feel like those are personal decisions.”
She also noticed that Haley said “bless you” every time someone in the audience sneezed. “That’s just, like, normal,” Fleming said.
Haley didn’t address abortion in her Iowa remarks, focusing on other issues such as her belief in border security, supporting Ukraine and taking both Democrats and Republicans to task for what she says is excessive government spending. But her approach to abortion illustrates both the advantages and pitfalls of her efforts to win over moderates.
The former governor has said she supports whatever abortion restrictions can pass but emphasizes that at the national level, not much is politically feasible. At an Christian forum in Iowa this fall, Haley said she would sign a six-week ban if she were still governor — but also reiterated, “I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice.”
Policy-wise, her stance is not too different from that of DeSantis, who has criticized Haley for referring to her personal “truth” on a thorny issue.
Voters have had some difficulty discerning Haley’s stance on abortion. In Iowa, the town hall attendee with the Obama book, who asked to be identified only as Shirley, called abortion a “personal choice” and said she thought Haley felt the same way. Another woman said hesitantly, “I think she’s more … pro-choice?”
Steven Kesselring, who has attended candidate events with his 9-year-old daughter Hannah, had never asked a candidate a question until a recent New Hampshire town hall with Haley, where he raised his hand because he didn’t understand what she believed in.
“I would like you to say exactly what your stance is on abortion,” he told her.
“I think abortion is personal for every woman and man in America, and it needs to be treated that way,” she said to applause.
Kesselring later said her answer had encouraged him, and he had decided to vote for Haley.
Christie has jabbed at Haley for not weighing in directly on a Texas Supreme Court’s decision to block an abortion for a woman whose fetus had a fatal genetic condition and whose doctor warned of potential harm to her future fertility. “If the question’s really hard, she wants to make everybody happy,” he said.
Standing in line for a Haley town hall in Newport, N.H., Evan Martin, 66, said she was certain she would vote for Haley next month. But she was less clear about where Haley stood on abortion, and she didn’t know how a Haley administration would respond to the Texas case.
“She’s a little gray in that area,” Martin said. “I think that’s something she should spend some time on.”
Trump is known for going off script and on long, grievance-filled tangents, vowing retribution against his enemies if returned to power. DeSantis has well-worn stories and talking points but regularly takes questions from the reporters who travel with him, opening the door to sometimes uncomfortable topics and seizing opportunities to make news.
Haley, in contrast, grants some pull-aside interviews but usually sidesteps that kind of questioning and delivers the same carefully honed speech at each stop before taking questions from voters.
She sticks around for photos until the room clears, sometimes lingering for more than an hour to chat with people. Exiting her Spirit Lake town hall through the downstairs bar, she stopped to take more pictures.
“Very personable, I like that,” longtime resident Kayce Faggart said to the man next to her at the bar as Haley walked away.
Some of her strongest applause lines are about her personal character rather than her policies. Haley tells room after room that she has been an underdog before. “It makes me scrappy,” she says, as she chases Trump, who has built a strong lead.
In Sioux City, Iowa, recently, her audience was subdued for much of her Q&A. Then someone asked if she would be Trump’s vice president.
“I don’t play for second,” Haley responded, drawing cheers.
When she opens the floor to questions, Haley often tells her audience that she’ll answer any question but she can’t promise they will like her answer. In New Hampshire, one voter asked her to speak out against the Israeli government’s treatment of Gazans. But as Haley emphasized her strong support of Israel, the woman shook her head.
“I don’t think she answered my question very well,” said Annie Montgomery, who has not yet decided which candidate to support.
Some of Haley’s opponents have zeroed in on the interest in her candidacy from non-Republicans. MAGA Inc., the super PAC supporting Trump, on Wednesday criticized Sununu’s calls for voters of all political stripes to turn out for Haley. Converging on deep-red northwestern Iowa this month with Haley and other candidates, DeSantis drew attention to support from JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.
“Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley, too. Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump,” Dimon said.
Attacks on Haley’s conservative credentials made an impression with Eugene Means, a Trump fan in Sioux City. “Hillary Clinton was one of the reasons she decided to get political,” Means said, echoing a recent ad from a group supporting DeSantis. “I don’t like her.” (Haley has said Clinton’s remarks on running for office inspired her, while also criticizing Clinton’s policies.)
Other Trump supporters said Haley seems to align with their views, even if they weren’t sold on her. “If she was the nominee I’d be totally fine,” said Rick Langholz, 72, who was curious to hear Haley in Spirit Lake and said Trump remains his top choice.
Christy Smith, 56, was eager to turn the page on Trump with Haley. “I think that she could work both sides and come to some sort of a compromise and be more of a moderate,” said Smith, a Republican who attended a Sioux City event in one of the shirts sold out outside: “Underestimate me: That’ll be fun.”
“I love your shirt!” Haley said, smiling and pointing, when Smith approached for a photo.
Kornfield reported from New Hampshire.