Nikki Haley Won the Debate Stage. Now, She’s Trying to Win Over Iowa.


About 15 minutes after Nikki Haley took the stage at a town hall in a Des Moines suburb on Saturday, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations, was heckled — twice — by men demanding to know her views on Taylor Swift.

Members of the crowd booed, and both questioners were escorted out. Ms. Haley — who often tells audiences in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that she is no stranger to dealing with hostile actors — took a beat.

Then, she smiled.

“Remember how blessed we are that we have freedom of this speech in this country,” she said, scanning the crowd. Then, after a smattering of applause, Ms. Haley went back to her message about slashing federal spending.

Ms. Haley’s mastery of moments like these, in front of crowds and in the first two Republican debates — during which she successfully fended off interruptions and delivered pithy, memorable one-liners — has delivered buzz, attention and money.

But her successes, while notable, are qualified: She and the rest of the pack are polling significantly behind former President Donald J. Trump. And both nationally and in first-in-the-nation Iowa, she lags behind Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

To boost her chances, Ms. Haley is banking on events like Saturday’s town hall, an intimate gathering of around 150 people in a nondescript ballroom festooned with campaign posters.

Ms. Haley staged a kind of political theater in the round, standing on a platform surrounded by audience members on all sides. Dressed casually, Ms. Haley played more to the crowd than to the cameras. She emphasized her small-town origins and nodded to her alma mater’s football team, Clemson. Though one-liners have challenged some of her rivals, Ms. Haley’s jokes elicited the desired response.

Yet even as she commanded a room filled largely with people leaning toward supporting her, Ms. Haley still had yet to fully win some over.

Nancy Vaught, of West Des Moines, said that she had been impressed with Ms. Haley’s performance in the debates and was drawn to her experience, particularly her record on international affairs. “Our world is in really dire straits,” Ms. Vaught said, “and we need somebody to take control who can deal with the international world.”

But Ms. Vaught also said that she had not ruled out the other candidate with international experience in the race: Mr. Trump.

The former president and his team appear to be considering Ms. Haley a more serious contender. During Wednesday’s debate, the Trump campaign sent a news release assailing her for not being conservative enough.

On Friday, Mr. Trump attacked Ms. Haley on Truth Social, his social media platform, referring to her as “birdbrain” and criticizing her for running despite having told Fox News in February that “I’m glad she’s running, I want her to follow her heart.”

Ms. Haley appeared to take the broadside in stride, posting a screenshot of it on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, with the caption: “Love this. It means we are in 2nd and moving up fast!” She added: “Bring it!”

Though Ms. Haley, 51, did not criticize Mr. Trump by name at her town hall in Clive, she did criticize the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill he signed in 2020. She also said that Republicans needed “a new generational conservative leader” if they wanted to win the popular vote in 2024. Mr. Trump, 77, did not win it in 2016 or 2020.

With Mr. Trump the clear front-runner, Ms. Haley’s campaign has been trying to court Republicans opposed to his renomination or worried about his electability in a general race.

Charlie Johnson, 69, who attended the Clive event, said that he initially backed Mr. DeSantis before the governor committed “blunders” that “put me off him.”

Mr. Johnson, of Council Bluffs, pointed to a controversy over Florida’s standards for teaching about slavery in schools and Mr. DeSantis’s rhetorical vow to start “slitting throats” if elected, a reference to his plans to pull apart the federal bureaucracy.

Ms. Haley’s performance in the debates, Mr. Johnson said, had partially won him over. But her experience helped seal the deal.

“I got off the DeSantis train,” Mr. Johnson said. “And I really liked Nikki, so that’s where I’m at now.”

Yet many of the same elements of Ms. Haley’s pitch — her age, her political experience and her track record in a governor’s mansion — are shared by Mr. DeSantis.

Advisers to Ms. Haley will next month attend a meeting of a network of megadonors, where they and advisers to Mr. DeSantis are expected to make a pitch to those who are considering whether investing in a candidate other than Mr. Trump may be worthwhile.

But in Clive, Ms. Haley was mainly focused on winning over the audience in front of her, telling the crowd that she would not shy away from hard truths, and that she would not dodge questions — including from hecklers.

“I think we do need to give it to these fellas that happened to show up,” she said, about 20 minutes after her stump speech had been interrupted. “Yes, I do like Taylor Swift.”


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