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Can Trump be stopped? Key questions ahead of New Hampshire after DeSantis drops out of race

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LA Post: Can Trump be stopped? Key questions ahead of New Hampshire after DeSantis drops out of race
January 21, 2024
STEVE PEOPLES - AP

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Donald Trump's effort to march to the Republican presidential nomination faces perhaps its greatest challenge on Tuesday when voters in New Hampshire hold the first-in-the-nation primary.

With Ron DeSantis ending his 2024 campaign and endorsing Trump on Sunday, the primary becomes the first one-on-one matchup between Trump and Nikki Haley.

The former president enters the contest emboldened by his record-setting performance in last week's Iowa caucuses. But New Hampshire has a more moderate political tradition and primary rules that allow unaffiliated voters to participate in the race. Trump-backed MAGA candidates have struggled here in recent years.

Haley, the former U.N. ambassador and onetime South Carolina governor, is hoping to capitalize on those vulnerabilities, especially now that she is the only major candidate left in the GOP primary aiming to defeat Trump outright. DeSantis, even before dropping out altogether, had effectively surrendered New Hampshire to focus instead on South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary. But he did have supporters in New Hampshire who now must decide what to do.

A Haley victory would usher in a more competitive phase of a primary that Trump has so far dominated. A Trump win, however, could create a sense of inevitability that he would become the GOP nominee for the third consecutive time.

Don’t forget Democrats have a primary, too. President Joe Biden is not on the ballot, having made South Carolina the first formal stop on the Democratic primary calendar. But New Hampshire is sticking to tradition and hosting its own Democratic primary anyway.

Here's what we're watching for on Tuesday:

CAN TRUMP BE STOPPED?

If Haley can't beat him in New Hampshire, she may not be able to stop him anywhere else, even in her home state of South Carolina.

The one-on-one fight between Trump and Haley is exactly what Trump's Republican critics have been clamoring for. Haley appears competitive and enjoys support among moderate voters and independents. She's also earned the backing of popular New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Still, Trump remains the favorite.

Sensing a knock-out blow, the former president has called in his growing army of prominent supporters in recent days to help demonstrate his strength. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Trump's former opponent, endorsed Trump at a New Hampshire rally over the weekend. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik and Ohio Sen. JD Vance stumped for Trump on Saturday before an appearance from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

A significant number of New Hampshire Republicans insist they will never support Trump. And without a competitive Democratic primary in the way, many left-leaning unaffiliated voters could decide to support Haley. But that doesn't change the fact that Republican primary elections are typically decided by Republicans, and Trump's grip on the base appears stronger than ever.

Still, New Hampshire loves a comeback story (just ask Bill Clinton), so we wouldn’t rule anything out.

WHERE DO DESANTIS SUPPORTERS GO?

DeSantis was seen as a distant third-place finisher in New Hampshire even before ending his campaign Sunday.

The Florida governor visited the state for the first time as a major 2024 primary candidate in June. After his 30-point drubbing in Iowa, where DeSantis had committed most of his time and resources, he surrendered New Hampshire before a single vote was cast. DeSantis actually spent the weekend campaigning in South Carolina, which hosts its primary election in five weeks.

But dismal poll numbers don't mean DeSantis had no support at all in New Hampshire. With him having aimed for the most conservative factions in the GOP coalition and then endorsing Trump, it's possible his formal departure adds votes to the former president's vote totals. Could that be the difference between Trump managing a narrow victory over Haley or garnering a clear majority that he then uses to declare the nomination a done deal before Haley gets her home-state shot at him?

HOW MUCH DOES ELECTABILITY REALLY MATTER?

Publicly and privately, Democratic leaders have repeatedly acknowledged that they fear Haley much more than Trump in a prospective general election matchup against Biden. We're about to find out whether Republican primary voters agree.

Haley has spent months telling voters that, without Trump's chaos and political baggage, she would be better positioned to defeat Biden in November. That argument didn't help her much in Iowa, where she finished just behind DeSantis.

She's betting that voters in swing-state New Hampshire will place more value on her longer-term political appeal. Sununu, New Hampshire's popular GOP governor, has been at Haley's side for weeks reminding voters of Trump’s dismal record in national elections ever since he entered the White House.

It's unclear if the message has resonated.

If it doesn't, it'll be because Trump has effectively convinced Republican voters that he — not Haley — is the most electable general election candidate. That's a risky bet, given his extraordinary legal problems, the attack he inspired on the U.S. Capitol and his demonstrated record of alienating suburban voters in successive elections.

Biden's unpopularity is no doubt muddying the issue.

Still, New Hampshire voters have an opportunity to cast a strategic vote Tuesday based on the one issue that seems to matter more than all else in today's politics: the ability to beat the other side.

IT'S ALL ABOUT TURNOUT

The end result may be tied most to who actually shows up to vote on Tuesday.

Iowa saw one of its lowest turnouts in recent history in last week’s caucuses. Low turnout elections typically favor the candidate with the strongest support among the party’s base. And in 2024, that’s Trump.

But Haley, with arguments about Trumpian chaos and electability, has been trying to appeal to independents and less-ideological moderate Republicans and independents.

New Hampshire law allows unaffiliated voters to participate in either party’s nomination contest. Democrats are not allowed to vote in the GOP primary, although voters had an opportunity to change their registration before an October deadline.

Haley needs a large turnout, driven by those unaffiliated voters, to have a chance.

New Hampshire Secretary of State David M. Scanlan predicted that 322,000 voters would participate in the GOP primary, which would be a record high. On the Democratic side, he’s expecting just 88,000 given there’s virtually no competition.

A PRESIDENTIAL EMBARRASSMENT?

It may not be the headline, but New Hampshire Democrats are voting for their presidential nominee as well. As much as Biden's team wants you to think they don't care about the outcome, they're paying attention.

Biden won't be on New Hampshire ballot, of course.

He's avoiding New Hampshire altogether after pushing the Democratic National Committee to award the nation's opening primary to South Carolina, a much more diverse state that's set to vote on Feb. 3. Furious about Biden's decision, the “Live Free or Die” state ignored the president's wishes and will host an unsanctioned Democratic primary anyway.

There are several lesser-known Democrats on the ballot, including Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and progressive activist Marianne Williamson. Eager to demonstrate Biden's strength despite his absence, the president's allies in the state have been encouraging voters to write in Biden's name.

The outcome will have no bearing on the number of delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination. But an underwhelming finish, even in a write-in campaign, would represent an unwanted embarrassment as Biden tries to improve his political standing heading into the fall campaign.

___

Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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