By James Oliphant
EPPING, New Hampshire (Reuters) – At a campaign event in eastern New Hampshire, last week, Melinda Tourangeau was wearing a Nikki Haley button on her lapel and a broad smile on her face.
Tourangeau, 57, said she would be thrilled to cast a vote for Haley in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Just as important, she said, was that she would not be voting for former President Donald Trump, as she had before.
“I had no choice. I had to subjugate my morals and ethics and his list of misogynistic…,” Tourangeau, a Republican, told Reuters, as her voice trailed off and her smile faded.
Ask women who support Haley about Trump and that reaction becomes common. Voting for him was something they hoped to never have to do again. If Trump does become the Republican nominee, as is widely expected, some are unsure what they will do.
Kathy Holland, 75, of Sandown, NH, who voted for Trump in 2016, said if he’s the nominee this time, “I will write someone in.”
You see women at Haley’s small-scale rallies in Haley-branded shirts and hats, where they typically outnumber men. They like her background as a governor and United Nations ambassador, her tough national-security stance and the fact that she’s a woman.
And they really like that she is not Donald Trump.
Michelle Wright, 53, of Rye, New Hampshire, now casts a critical eye back at the Trump years. “He likes to talk about himself like he was fantastic, but really he wasn’t.”
Did she vote for him? “I did. I held my nose.”
The hopes of Haley’s passionate cohort may be short-lived. Polls show Trump to be heavily favored in Tuesday’s primary. Haley needs to keep it close to have a rationale for going forward, although she is expected to press on to her home state of South Carolina for its Feb. 24 primary regardless.
After Florida Governor Ron DeSantis exited the race to become the Republican presidential nominee on Sunday, Haley was the only challenger to Trump remaining.
She’s trying to appeal to New Hampshire’s moderate Republicans and independents, who can vote in the primary, but still faces steep odds.
“President Trump is the only one who can unite the party, whereas Nikki Haley is the only one trying to tear the party down by playing footsies with Democrats and Never Trumpers to invade the primary,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign.
Trump is well-known for denigrating and misogynistic comments toward women and has been accused numerous times of sexual misconduct, which he denies. He spent last week in a Manhattan courtroom as a defendant in a civil defamation case involving a writer, E. Jean Carroll, who claims Trump assaulted her.
Awaiting Haley at a restaurant in Epping, New Hampshire, Carole Alfano said she didn’t want to talk about Trump. “I’m tired of the drama. She’s low drama.”
Alfano, who declined to give her age, said Haley’s candidacy excited her. “I want to see a woman president in my lifetime,” she said. “She’s that new generation. Bye-bye Boomers!”
THE NEXT TO FALL?
Despite his history, Trump has shown little problem in attracting women voters. Hundreds can be found at his rallies. A University of New Hampshire/CNN poll released on Sunday showed that both candidates attract men and women in close to equal proportions, although Haley had a distinct 12-percentage-point edge with college-educated voters.
Marie Bradley, 75, of Laconia, New Hampshire, said she planned to vote for Trump. She respects Haley’s credentials, she said, but views her as too much of a politician.
“I love a strong woman. I feel like I’m a strong woman,” Bradley said. “But she’s not the woman for our country.”
While Haley sometimes quips about wearing high heels and quotes Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher on the campaign trail, she mostly stays away from overtly referring to her gender even though if elected, she would become America’s first woman president.
Trump dashed Hillary Clinton’s attempt to make history when he defeated the Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential election. Haley may be the next woman to fall.
During Republican debates and at some events, Haley has chided male candidates for not knowing how to speak about the issue of abortion. But in New Hampshire with its large population of political moderates, abortion can be a tricky subject to navigate, and she has largely avoided it.
Elizabeth Childs, 63, who attended an event in Seabrook, New Hampshire, said she was backing Haley even though she believes abortion should be legal.
“I think Nikki has done a really good job of saying she’s pro-life herself for very personal reasons,” Childs said. “But she was very clear that we need to stop demonizing women about this issue.”
Haley attempts to identify with her audiences in other ways, particularly when she refers to herself as “a wife of a combat veteran” and the mother of two children.
In New Hampshire, she has frequently spoken about her husband Michael, a major in the South Carolina National Guard, and his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home from a deployment in Afghanistan in 2012.
After a Haley event in Manchester last week, Holland of Sandown said she appreciated that Haley “understands the needs of the military and the plight of military families.”
In Seabrook on Sunday, the crowd that had come to see Haley cheered when told that DeSantis had dropped out of the race.
“He ran a great campaign,” Haley said. “For now, let me leave you with this: Let the best woman win.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Epping, New Hampshire; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne and Gram Slattery in New Hampshire; Editing by Sonali Paul)