A Georgian’s guide to New Hampshire’s primary

DeSantis quits race, giving Haley head-to-head matchup she has long wanted

SALEM, N.H. — New Hampshire has never seen a primary like this one.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just dropped out of the race. Donald Trump is mixing campaign stops with court appearances. The debates were canceled. And President Joe Biden is skipping the state altogether.

A lot of the buzz and energy that jolted New Hampshire in past primary cycles is missing this time, with the former president dominating the polls and voters’ attention and the field of candidates steadily dwindling.

But that doesn’t mean the race Tuesday is an afterthought. The high-stakes contest will determine whether former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley can mobilize enough anti-Trump forces to slow his march to the nomination before the race turns to South Carolina.

And DeSantis’ surprise decision on Sunday to quit the race after a 30-point loss to Trump in Iowa turns the race into a two-candidate contest. The outcome will help shape Georgia’s March 12 primary — if the nominating contest hasn’t wrapped up by then.

What’s at stake?

This is the head-to-head matchup against Trump that Haley has wanted since entering the race, and she’s spent tremendous campaign resources appealing to middle-of-the-road Republicans who comprise a significant bloc of New Hampshire’s GOP base.

With DeSantis out of the race, it will be a make-or-break moment for Haley and the group of Never Trump Republicans and others who see her as the last, best hope to derail Trump’s momentum after his runaway Iowa caucus victory.

“I am absolutely not voting for Trump. Do I vote for Haley to give her a puncher’s chance? Do I write in Biden? Do I give Dean Philips a chance?” asked Adam O’Kane, a marketing executive at a rally in Hampton who describes himself as an Independent.

“Nobody could do anything to make me vote for Trump. I just want to make my vote count against him.”

Polls show Haley gaining on Trump, but anything short of an upset victory or a close second-place finish could prove fatal to her White House bid.

The state’s 1.4 million residents are being inundated in the final days with pro-Haley messages warning of the “chaos” that another Trump term would bring. She’s also released an unusually long 3-minute closing TV ad that touts her foreign policy credentials.

And she’s taken more direct shots at Trump, including questioning on Saturday whether the 77-year-old has the mental fitness to serve another term.

But she’s struggled to shift the spotlight from Trump, who has surrounded himself with Republicans from her home state of South Carolina — including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who recently ended his presidential bid and endorsed him on Friday.

“New Hampshire is for Trump. South Carolina is too,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster told a Manchester rally. “We will see you at the finish line.”

What happened to DeSantis?

His campaign imploded spectacularly. After a humiliating defeat in Iowa, the Florida governor decamped to South Carolina to stake his claim on the Feb. 24 first-in-the-South primary. But he was trailing Haley and Trump there, too.

On Sunday, he called it quits and endorsed Trump, saying he “left it all on the field.”

“Trump is superior to the current incumbent, Joe Biden. That is clear. I signed a pledge to support the Republican nominee, and I will honor that pledge. He has my endorsement because we can’t go back to the old Republican guard of yesteryear.”

The timing was a surprise, but DeSantis has recently telegraphed his doubts about staying in the race. He talked openly of his regrets about the early stages of his campaign and quietly began positioning himself for a potential 2028 run.

“I don’t want to be VP, I don’t want to be in the cabinet, I don’t want a TV show,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt this week.

“I’m in it to win it, and at some point, you know, if that’s not working out for you, I recognize that. This isn’t a vanity thing for me. But I do believe in November we have an opportunity to do very, very well.”

What else is different this cycle?

It doesn’t take long on the ground here to notice the more muted environment from previous primaries. Instead of a fiery all-out blaze through Tuesday’s vote, this race feels more like a slow burn.

Haley has kept a busy schedule of about a half-dozen stops a day, but there are hardly any other events.

Trump has held a large rally every night, but during the day dispatches surrogates to campaign stops. DeSantis hardly campaigned in New Hampshire before dropping out. And the other key GOP contenders have already abandoned the race.

What’s more, Haley canceled televised debates scheduled for the final stretch of the race, saying she’d only participate if Trump did. Her decision reflected her frustration with Trump’s boycott of the previous five debates, but it also deprived her of a chance to make a final impression on New Hampshire voters.

What does it mean for Georgia?

New Hampshire’s Republican electorate is far more moderate than Georgia’s GOP base. While Trump carried both states’ GOP primaries in 2016, it was the first time since 1988 that a non-incumbent Republican carried the two.

But Tuesday’s outcome will help gauge how voters with more mainstream views weigh Trump’s comeback bid — no small factor in Georgia, where a small bloc of independent swing voters helped seal Biden’s victory in 2020.

And it will provide a window into how Republicans in another early-voting state view criminal indictments against Trump in Fulton County and three other jurisdictions.

What about the Democratic race?

Biden won’t be on New Hampshire’s ballot. That’s because the Democratic National Committee decided to move South Carolina — and its far more diverse electorate — ahead of New Hampshire. Biden wanted Georgia moved up on the calendar, too.

Political leaders here rejected the change, noting that New Hampshire’s status is famously sealed in a state law that guarantees the primary is the nation’s first. As a result, the national party has said the state’s delegates won’t be counted as part of the official nominating process.

Even so, Biden’s allies have organized a write-in push and polls indicate the incumbent is the heavy favorite.

That hasn’t stopped Biden’s opponents from trying to capitalize on his absence. U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips is barnstorming around the state to small crowds, and his TV ads compare the president to the elusive “Bigfoot.”

At a Sunday event in Hampton, Phillips promised to bring more bipartisanship and consensus to Washington even as he poked fun at his quixotic bid.

“Being unknown in a presidential campaign is a huge blessing,” he said to an audience of a few dozen crammed into a seafood restaurant, “because two-thirds of the country doesn’t hate me yet.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein and columnist Patricia Murphy are in New Hampshire to cover its first-in-the-nation Republican primary. Follow their coverage on AJC.com/politics, and follow them on X: Bluestein at @bluestein and Murphy at @MurphyAJC