Nikki Haley’s Civil War flub proves distracting in key state of New Hampshire

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Nikki Haley’s unwillingness, at first, to say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War during an event in New Hampshire town hall this week is proving to be the gaffe she can’t escape in the state where she can’t underperform.

Haley’s comments came during an event in Berlin, N.H. after a voter asked what she thought the “cause” of the Civil War was. Haley responded that it was over “how government was going to run — the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.” Her answer notably did not mention the “freedom” that was at the heart of the matter: the ability to own slaves.

In the more than 48 hours since, Haley has tried to walk back the comment, saying the following day on “Good Morning New Hampshire” that “of course the Civil War was about slavery,” but she has also continued to center her responses to the question on things like “individual freedom” and “economic freedom” as underlying drivers that cause the Civil War. In addition, she has said that the person who asked the question was a “plant” sent by Democrats, an assertion made without evidence.

“We are on day three and she is still trying to get past it,” said Matthew Bartlett, a New Hampshire-based Republican operative. “I’m not sure litigating the Civil War is a top issue for New Hampshire voters, but when you make a mistake you have to get past it.”

“She needed to make her answer short, simple and patriotic,” he added. “Instead she is trying to get philosophical and talk about the lessons of economics and capitalism. Just, like, stop.”

Compounding the problem is the state of this particular mistake. New Hampshire is a huge part of Haley’s early state strategy, and a place seen as uniquely well suited to give her a boost and formally transform the race into a two-person contest with former President Donald Trump, who is the overwhelming frontrunner.

It is the state where Haley has spent much of her time and resources, and she has been surging there roughly a month out from the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. She secured the endorsement of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, support also eagerly sought by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and has been ascending in most public polling. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll had Haley at 29% with likely GOP voters, a number that represents her closing the gap with Trump, who has led in most public polling, and snagged 44% in the most recent New Hampshire survey.

“Everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Trump is attacking Nikki for one reason: She’s the only candidate with momentum,” said a Haley spokeswoman. “For months, Nikki has been talking to every voter and taking every question, and the excitement around her is real.”

The dynamics of the New Hampshire primary are also unique compared to other early states in a way that could cause ripple effects from her Civil War comments.

New Hampshire allows unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary, giving the generally more moderate slice of the state’s electorate significant sway. There are nearly 400,000 unaffiliated voters in New Hampshire, which is roughly 40% of the state’s overall electorate, according to the Independent Voter Project.

Hella Ross, an undeclared voter who was leaning towards voting for Haley, told NBC News on Thursday that she thought it was “astounding” that the former ambassador flubbed the answer.

“It’s astounding to me that she got tripped up. However, it proves, once again, that she is concerned about alienating the MAGA crowd/base,” Ross said. “Shameful, but she can’t have it both ways.”

In Iowa, the comment didn’t seem to be swaying too many voters.

Lisa Kraieg, a 58-year-old from Edgewood, IA, who works at a bridal store, remains undecided.

“I think she answered the question well, I do. I feel like it wasn’t all just about slavery. The country was divided. So I do think she answered it well,” Kraieg said. “I feel like sometimes we focus too much on on that (slavery). Not that that’s not important, but there was a lot more than just, that’s just one issue.”

New Hampshire’s more moderate primary electors, due in part to the inclusion of unaffiliated voters, is also seen as a state where former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christies’ long-shot campaign also has a chance to do well. He has defended Haley from attacks in the past but used the Civil War gaffe to amplify the message that he is the only candidate in the Republican primary willing to tell the truth, a message he is amplifying with a seven-figure New Hampshire TV buy that on Thursday he tied to Haley’s Civil War comments.

“The ad’s tone and message stand in stark contrast to what we saw last night in New Hampshire,” the Christie campaign said, referring Haley’s comment. “This is a different campaign because Christie is telling the truth in a way that no other candidate is willing to — no matter the topic.”

DeSantis, who is running fourth in most New Hampshire public polling, also attacked Haley for her response.

“The minute that she faces any kind of scrutiny, she tends to cave,” DeSantis said. “I think that that’s what you saw yesterday. Not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War, and yet that seemed to be something that was really difficult.”

DeSantis has himself faced heat in the past for his handling of how schools in Florida teach Black history. Earlier this year, the DeSantis administration’s education department signed off on new standards that included controversial language that mentioned “personal benefits” for slaves.

Bartlett, the New Hampshire operative, said the Haley campaign has done a bad job of ending the controversy, but he remains skeptical it will materially change the dynamics of the New Hampshire primary.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know that this is going to get anyone to change their votes,” he said.

Others view the Civil War misstep as highlighting the perceived weakness of Haley as she tries to dethrone Trump: a fear to cross the Trump-loving Republican primary electorate.

“Unfortunately for Haley, this town hall train wreck was a perfect example of her greatest flaw; she is a fear-based candidate,” wrote veteran Republican operative Mike Murphy, who said he is no “fan” of Haley but has been hyping her campaign because he prefers her to Trump. “Unlike Trump, Haley is a victim of fear, not a malicious vendor of it.”

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Nikki Haley’s Civil War flub proves distracting in key state of New Hampshire

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