March 5, 2024

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Everybodys waiting to write my obituary.

This is never a good thing for a candidate to be saying on Election Day.

But Nikki Haley, the candidate, was tryingpleadingto make a larger point to CNNs Dana Bash as they sat on raised chairs in the middle of Chez Vachon, the landmark coffee shop and makeshift TV studio on the west side of Manchester, New Hampshire.

We had 14 candidates, Haley said, referring to the number of people who were seeking the Republican nomination a few months ago. Its now down to twoHaley and Donald Trump. Thats not an obituary; thats somebody whos a fighter.

Fair enough. Haley was indeed still here and showing up, which is something to be proud of. She is the last woman standing between the former president and an unimpeded romp to the Republican nomination. This was Haleys closing argument as she made her final rounds in New Hampshire yesterday, greeting volunteers at polling places, doing interviews, and hitting the tables at Chez Vachon. She would keep fighting and continue to flout the naysayers who have trailed her for her entire career. Underestimate me is the message printed on one of Haleys favorite T-shirts. Thatll be fun.

Almost immediately after the polls closed, a few hours later, networks declared Trump the New Hampshire winner. His margin of victory over Haley, however, looked smaller than expected. THIS RACE IS OVER, Trump insisted in a text blasted out to his supporter list just after 8 p.m. Nope, Haley told her Election Night revelers in Concord, vowing to persist as the campaign moved to her home state of South Carolina. New Hampshire is first in the nation. Its not last in the nation, she said in her speech. This race is far from over.

I spent much of December and early January watching Haley campaign for the job she quite clearly has been aspiring to for years. She proved to be disciplined and polished, good enough to outlast the battalion of male challengers arrayed alongside herthe fellas, as she has lately taken to calling her rivals, many of whom endorsed Trump as they fell away. She has claimed repeatedly to be part of a two-person race against Trump, despite finishing third in Iowa behind him and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Read: What is Nikki Haley even talking about?

This felt like wishful thinking at times, but it is unquestionably true now and will present Haley with whats been a recurring dilemma of her candidacy: How hard will she be willing to campaign against Trump? Will she be as noxious and ornery as the former president surely will be against her? Will she be willing to attack Trump and seize the ample vulnerabilities he provides, even if it risks his unrestrained ire?

Haley was hesitant to go after him when the field was more crowded. She offered only the mildest of critiquesthat chaos follows Trump rightly or wrongly and that he was not the right president for these times (as he was before). But it was hardly a sure thing that Haley would deploy her best material against Trumpabout his odd behavior and mental capacity and legal problems.

The final days of the New Hampshire campaign offered clues that she might now be willing to do so. She mentioned Trumps age throughout the day yesterday (inflating it by three years, to 80) and brought up the perplexing sequence from Trumps Friday-night rally, in which he seemed to suggest that Haley had been in charge of security at the Capitol on January 6 (he apparently had mistaken her for Nancy Pelosi).

Perhaps more notably, Haley conveyed that she was willing to draw out the race for as long as necessary. Joe Biden isnt going to get any younger or any better, she said in her speech in Concord. Well have all the time we need to beat Joe Biden. This carried a sly message directed at Trump: He wasnt getting any younger or better, either. And the longer the race continued, the more his court cases would advance, new facts would be revealed, and his behavior could spiral. Haley pointed out that voters in 20 states would be casting ballots in the next two months. There would be many more contests to enjoy, or stay alive for.

If nothing else, Haley would live to see another Election Day, in another state.

Primary days can give off an oddly freewheeling and punch-drunk vibe. Candidates, staffers, and volunteers have all done their work. Most of them are exhausted and often battling colds, hangovers, or other ailments. There is no more practice and preparation left to do.

The hay is in the barn, as old political hacks like to say. Or, at least one political hack said thisto mebut I forget who it was. Ive also seen the maxim attributed to stir-crazy football coaches (before the big game) and distance runners (before a race). The basic idea is the same: Theres not much left to do, except find a way to pass hours and burn nervous energy.

Everything that remains tends to be improvisational and hardly strategic. Candidates rush around, trying to get supporters out to vote and, in Haleys case, to convince them that the race is not over, despite all the polls showing Trump with a big lead.

I dont even want to talk about numbers, and I dont think yall should either, Haley admonished Bash at Chez Vachon.

She then mentioned one number in particular: six.

That reflects the sum of votes that Haley received in Dixville Notch, the tiny village in the northern tip of the state that is known for tallying its votes just after midnight on the morning of the primary. There were more than 10 journalists for every voter, The New York Times said in its report on the wee-hours scene, which it called as much a press spectacle as it is a serious exercise in democracy. (The same could be said about the New Hampshire primary in general, an exercise that features a relatively tiny number of voters whose views are comically amplified by media swarms.)

All six came to us, Haley reported of the Dixville Notch vote. Not part, not oneall six.

Haley was joined at Chez Vachon by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, her biggest supporter and frequent traveling companion across the state in recent weeks. At one point, I asked Sununu, who was standing next to the kitchen doornearly getting run over by waitresses carrying plates loaded with pancakes, bacon, and poutine drowned in brown gravywhether he was worried that this might be the last New Hampshire primary as we know it. Some have predicted as much, given that the Democrats are no longer holding their first contest here. Was he feeling wistful at all, nostalgic maybe?

Read: First in the nationand last?

Nah, were always in this. It never leaves us, Sununu said. He added that the Democrats had learned their lessonthat they never should have messed with New Hampshire and tried to take away its rightful spot at the front of the primary parade.

Sununu has shown himself willing to question Trumps age and mental fitness more directly than Haley had been until the past few days. If hes off the teleprompter, he can barely keep a cogent thought, Sununu said of Trump in an interview with Fox News yesterday. This guy is nearly 80 years old.

Hes 77, the Fox host corrected him.

Thats nearly 80, Sununu maintained. Well do math later.

He has an obvious point about Trump, one thats worth making. But this is a pet peeve of mine. Sununu and Haley often say that a Donald TrumpJoe Biden rematch would feature two 80-year-olds. Haley recently said that if Trump were convicted, and she were elected, she would likely pardon the former president. Why? Because its not in the countrys interest to have an 80-year-old man sitting in jail, she said.

It sounds like a minor thing, but if Haley is going to attack Trump (correctly) for lying, if shes going to try to claim some moral high ground in this race, she herself should not be fudging the facts. Theres no need to anyway; at 52, shes clearly younger than both him and Biden.

Since I figured the encounter at Chez Vachon might be the last time that Id be so closeto Haleymaybe everI decided to be one of those nuisance reporters and follow her out of the restaurant.

How old is President Trump? I asked her as she crossed Kelley Street. Haley ignored me.

How old is President Trump? I tried again. She kept walking. Someone else shouted a question that I didnt hear.

Theres a lot of energy, thats what were seeing today, Haley said in a rote tone, disappearing into a town car and motoring off to her next stop, and then more stops after that.