A do-or-die night for Nikki Haley? What to watch in New Hampshire

                        FILE — Donald Trump and Nikki Haley during a news conference at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 11, 2017. Haley made herself the public face at the U.N. of the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. (Al Drago/The New York Times)  ...

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

FILE — Donald Trump and Nikki Haley during a news conference at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 11, 2017. Haley made herself the public face at the U.N. of the administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. (Al Drago/The New York Times) ...

LACONIA, N.H. — Will New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday be another step in Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination, or a moment when the GOP establishment united around Nikki Haley to ambush his comeback bid?

Now that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has dropped his White House bid and endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign, Haley finally has the head-to-head matchup that she’s always wanted.

But buoyed by his historic win in Iowa last week, Trump is angling for what his supporters hope is a knockout blow. Already, his allies are calling him the presumptive nominee, and even reluctant Republicans are endorsing his campaign.

Haley might not have a better shot to defeat Trump — or at least land a close second place — than here in the Granite State.

New Hampshire’s Republican base is more mainstream than evangelical, and a tight finish could buoy Haley ahead of the Feb. 24 primary in her home state of South Carolina. A blowout Trump win, however, would raise pressure on her to bow out and trigger the start of the general election race against President Joe Biden.

Democrats, too, have their own drama to contend with. That’s because the Democratic National Committee put South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire on the early primary schedule. Biden isn’t on the ballot, but he’s still hoping to avoid a humbling defeat.

Here are a few things we’re watching:

Is Trump the inevitable GOP nominee?

The former president enters Tuesday’s primary with a full head of steam. After his record-breaking Iowa caucus victory, he’s picked up endorsements of DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and other former GOP rivals.

And he’s framed himself as the eventual nominee, urging New Hampshire Republicans to dispatch of Haley by a hefty margin so the party can focus on defeating Biden in November.

“If you want to save America, then tomorrow you have to do this,” he said at a cramped eelection-eve rally at a Laconia resort. “Let’s get this season started.”

But surprise race-altering finishes happen in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton shocked Barack Obama with a victory here in 2008, and John McCain’s defeat of George W. Bush propelled his campaign for months. If Haley can’t score a similar upset, her campaign may be doomed.

“No non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate has won both Iowa and New Hampshire since 1980, so if Trump can win New Hampshire, it will confirm he’s the inevitable choice,” said Nathan Price, a University of North Georgia political scientist.

Haley and her allies insist she’s staying in the race, even if she’s routed.

“I don’t care what the results are, of course she should stay in the race,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Haley’s most important ally here, said on MSNBC. “You’re just going to coronate Donald Trump after two states?”

How will ‘undeclared’ voters break?

Haley is depending on huge turnout from independent voters, known as “undeclared” in New Hampshire. They make up a plurality of the state’s electorate, with roughly 39% of the vote. That’s compared with 31% registered Republicans and 30% Democrats.

Gauging who they will support is hard to predict. The state’s voter base is more suburban, more moderate and has fewer evangelicals than Iowa — all factors that favor Haley. And DeSantis’ few loyalists in the state may not influence the outcome.

At campaign stops, Haley’s pitches herself to them much like Biden promised in 2020 — a return to normalcy.

“Rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him,” she said of Trump on Monday. “You all know I’m right. Chaos follows him. And we can’t have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won’t survive.”

Will Trump’s criminal indictments be a burden or a boon?

The contest will serve as a telling barometer for how Republican voters gauge the 91 criminal charges filed against Trump in Georgia and three other jurisdictions.

The former president has tried to turn his legal problems into an asset on the campaign trail, casting himself as a victim of a “weaponized” criminal justice system.

“We’re beating Biden by so much, I’ll probably be indicted three or more times by tomorrow,” he told supporters in Laconia. “They’re going to indict. They’re going to keep indicting. They’re going to keep driving my numbers up.”

And at a rally in Rochester on Sunday, Trump said he would direct an “overhaul of the Department of Justice to investigate every radical, out-of-control prosecutor in America for their illegal, racist and reverse enforcement of the law.”

Haley, by contrast, is more likely to tiptoe around the charges. She’s wary of alienating fellow Republicans who agree with Trump, a position that polls in Georgia and other battleground states show is widespread among likely GOP voters.

She warns Trump and Biden are both focused on the “investigations that they’re in” but not their visions for the future. And when an attendee at an Exeter rally yelled “send Trump to prison,” Haley hardly paused before resuming her stump speech.

Can Biden pull out a write-in win?

It’s easy to forget there’s a Democratic race here, too. That’s because Biden isn’t campaigning - and isn’t even on the ballot.

After the party supplanted New Hampshire with South Carolina as the first-in-the-nation primary, defiant Democrats insisted on holding an unsanctioned vote anyways.

U.S. Rep. Dean Philips and progressive activist Marianne Williamson have crisscrossed the state, hoping to deal Biden an embarrassing defeat. TV ads blanketing the airwaves compare the president to the elusive Bigfoot.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu joins supporters demonstrating at a Joe Biden Write-In Rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Jan. 20, 2024. Biden will not be on New Hampshire's Jan. 23 primary ballot, but supporters are organizing a write-in campaign. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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But the president’s allies have organized an extensive write-in campaign. They’ve launched a website with sample ballots, sent direct mail to voters, and planned sign-waving brigades all week to remind Democrats to etch his name on their ballots.

“It’s a hard thing to win in a write-in campaign,” U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna said during a stop in Concord. “The whole country is going to notice, as they always do in New Hampshire, and they’re gonna say this president has enthusiasm.”