‘Common sense’ candidate? Nikki Haley draws independent voters as she battles Trump, DeSantis

NEWTON, Iowa — Carol Camp wanted to hear what Nikki Haley had to say “without anybody else’s filters on.”

The 58-year-old political independent and educator at Iowa State University Extension saw Haley speak for the first time Friday at a town hall in Newton. She came away agreeing with some parts of what Haley said and disagreeing with others.

“She pointed out mistakes both sides are making,” Camp said. “That, to me, at least I know she’s not going to cover for her party if they’re doing something that maybe isn’t on the up and up.”

Camp supported President Joe Biden in the 2020 election but said “I feel his time to serve America has passed.”

“Of what I see in the candidates in the Republican Party right now that are running, I would lean towards caucusing for her,” she said of Haley.

The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador is seeing growing interest from political independents like Camp as she seeks to challenge her former boss, Donald Trump.

More: Nikki Haley unveils dozens of Iowa endorsers after another post-presidential debate boost

Sixteen percent of Iowa Republican caucusgoers named Haley as their first choice for president in an October Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll — tying with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump led with 43%.

Haley performs better with independents than she does with likely GOP caucusgoers overall. The October Iowa Poll showed 22% of independents name Haley as their first choice for president — up from 10% in August.

Her campaign is acknowledging that momentum — and seeking to build on it.

“This is a growing effort,” David Oman, one of Haley’s recent endorsers, told a crowd of more than 200 at a Friday morning event in Ankeny. “I think in a campaign it’s fun to be a part of a team that’s growing.”

Nikki Haley pitches electability, strategy for going head to head with Trump

At her events, Haley has honed a message aimed at undecided voters: She’s the candidate who can win.

She cites national polls that show her beating President Joe Biden in battleground states by larger margins than Trump or DeSantis.

“This isn’t just about the presidency,” she said. “This is about us winning governorships all up and down the ballot, Senate races all up and down the ballot and House races up and down the ballot. We want to get all of that so we can start getting our country back on track.”

Asked in Ankeny about her ability to prevail over Trump, Haley walked the audience through her early state strategy, noting that the field of candidates has winnowed as the debate rules have tightened.

More: Nikki Haley says ‘I don’t agree’ with Donald Trump describing opponents as ‘vermin’

“Going into Iowa we’re going to see three to four people fight for Iowa,” she said. “A couple people are going to drop, then we’re going to go into New Hampshire and then we’re going to fight for Granite Staters. Then more people are going to drop, and then I go head to head with Trump in my home state of South Carolina. And we take it.”

But, Haley said, for that plan to work she needs to do well in Iowa.

“Don’t complain about what happens in a general election if you don’t play in this caucus,” she said. “It matters.”

Haley ends her stump speech by encouraging the crowd to convert their friends and neighbors into supporters.

“If you like what I had to say today, go tell 10 people,” she said in Ankeny. “Fill out this card and caucus for us. Go tell them to volunteer, to invest, to caucus, whatever it is. Tell your family and friends. Everybody knows they trust their family and friends on what they’re going to do.”

And she closes with a joke.

“If you don’t like what I had to say today, shh,” she whispered. “Just don’t say anything and don’t tell anyone you were here.”

Some independents drawn to Nikki Haley by debate stage performance, ‘common sense’

On Thursday afternoon, Jim Hansen was among the independent voters who attended a packed town hall event at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque. The event marked Haley’s first stop on a two-day campaign swing in Iowa.

At Emmaus, in the college’s basement coffee shop, 86-year-old Hansen was among those able to grab a seat at the standing-room-only event, waiting for Haley to speak.

Hansen, who previously voted for Trump, said he wants Haley in the White House.

“I like her real well,” Hansen, of Dubuque, said, his voice striving to climb over the noise from the more than 200-plus crowd crammed in a tight space.

More: DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy get personal in appeals to evangelicals at Family Leader event

He told the Des Moines Register he likes how she approaches people and her experience in foreign policy.

“She makes a lot of common sense,” he added. “She speaks to the average voter.”

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley greets a crowd of more than 200 at a town hall event Nov. 16 at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley greets a crowd of more than 200 at a town hall event Nov. 16 at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque.

Jerry Fennell, 72, of Dubuque, was another independent voter at the event who echoed several of Hansen’s sentiments.

Undecided between Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Fennell said he is so far impressed by Haley’s debate stage performances and likes “the way she carries herself.”

On Thursday, at another event in Waverly, 73-year-old Margaret Dean said she has her eye on Haley now.

Dean, of Evansdale, said she voted Democrat for years but recently became an independent and is exploring Republican candidates like Haley and her rival DeSantis.

But after hearing Haley at the Waverly Area Veterans Post, she said she is now “iffy” about DeSantis. She said she also thinks Trump is “too sarcastic for me, and I don’t like how he treats people.”

Dean said she feels Haley has “the right ideas” and is willing to do the work. She liked Haley’s stances on national security and abortion.

Haley has said on the campaign trail and the debate stage that she is “unapologetically pro-life” but has called to stop “demonizing” the issue that is personal for many women and men.

Dean told the Register her own beliefs on abortion are similar to Haley’s.

“I’m not against anybody that does (get) an abortion for certain reasons,” she said while leaving the event Thursday night. “It shouldn’t be the government telling. That’s how I feel about it. She’s kind of that way. She respects anybody’s rights.”

Some caucusgoers leave Nikki Haley events committed, while others are still browsing

Seeing Haley speak is enough to lock in some supporters.

At Haley’s Newton event, former Republican Party of Iowa executive director Marlys Popma stood up and gave an impromptu speech endorsing Haley.

“I was an undecided voter when I walked in here today, and I am no longer an undecided voter,” she told the crowd.

More: Nikki Haley gets impromptu endorsement from former Iowa Republican Party head Marlys Popma

Barbara Arthur was at the same event. The 73-year-old from Oakland Acres is a Republican who said before the event that she was undecided and was considering Trump, DeSantis and Haley.

Afterward, Arthur made a confession.

“I never told you this when you were first talking to me,” she said. “But I was leaning toward Trump, and she’s kind of flipped me. She’s a very good leader.”

Others, like former Democratic state lawmaker Wes Breckenridge, now a political independent, showed up to hear Haley speak but aren’t ready to make a decision.

“I think for the Republican side I see her as somebody that could bring a step back toward civility within the Republican Party,” Breckenridge said after hearing Haley speak in Newton.

Breckenridge said “it’s too early to tell” if he would caucus for Haley. He said he’s a “strong proponent” of Biden who’s just listening to the Republican candidates right now, not making plans to caucus for them.

“I think one of the things I look at is if you don’t get out and listen to all the candidates you’re not making an informed decision,” he said. “So that’s what I choose to do.”

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Camp, the Newton independent who voted for Biden in 2020, hasn’t made her decision either. Although she said she would lean towards caucusing for Haley, Camp wasn’t ready to commit as she walked out of the building.

“Today’s the first day I’ve actually got to hear her,” she said. “So I have some research to do.”

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at sgrubermil@registermedia.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.

F. Amanda Tugade covers social justice issues for the Des Moines Register. Email her at ftugade@dmreg.com or follow her on Twitter @writefelissa.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Nikki Haley is courting independent voters to try to catch Trump

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