(Bloomberg) -- Nikki Haley’s challenge to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination could receive a boost next Tuesday from New Hampshire’s more moderate electorate and the ability of independents to vote in GOP primaries, state Republican Party Chairman Chris Ager said Saturday.
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Trump has suggested that a strong performance by Haley would be less legitimate because she would rely largely on independent voters. While Democrats cannot vote in the first-in-the-nation primary, independent or undeclared voters can register as Republicans on Election Day and participate.
Trump leads Haley by nearly 16 points in the latest RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis polling in third place with single digits.
Ager said Haley “absolutely” has a chance to upset Trump.
“The momentum and the expectations are all on Donald Trump’s side,” Ager told reporters at a breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News in Manchester. “But stranger things have happened.”
New Hampshire’s primary will either solidify the former president’s grip on the party — or leave an opening for Haley, his former UN ambassador who has gotten significant support from a Koch Industries-backed super PAC and an endorsement from New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.
Ager dismissed the notion that the state’s primary structure, allowing for independents to vote, makes it less of a bellwether for the will of the party’s voters nationwide.
“These rules have been in place for over 40 years and Donald Trump took advantage of that in 2016,” Ager told reporters. “Our primary is intended to really not get fringe candidates elected, but to get the person nominated, who could be president of the United States.”
New Hampshire Republicans tend to be more libertarian and fiscally oriented than their Iowa counterparts, who gave Trump a win in the sparsely attended caucuses on Monday. But some of those issues are the same. Ager said immigration is as much an issue at the northern border as it is in the heartland, with fentanyl and human smuggling resonating among New Hampshire voters.
The New Hampshire Secretary of State is projecting that 322,000 Republicans will turn out for the primary — a 12% increase over 2016’s record turnout for Trump’s victory in the primary that year.
Tuesday’s contest presents the biggest challenge to Trump’s status as the GOP standard-bearer since early in the 2016 primaries. As Haley’s poll numbers have surged, Trump has taken an increasingly aggressive posture — referring to her by derisive nicknames like “birdbrain” and “Nimbra,” mocking her birth name.
Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, was born Nimarata Nikki Randhawa in South Carolina, but Trump has falsely revived “birther” conspiracy theories — like the ones he leveled at former President Barack Obama — that she’s not a natural-born citizen as the constitution requires of the president.
Ager said Trump’s rhetoric is “unfiltered” but not racist.
“President Trump says a lot of things that no one else can get away with. And this may be the example of that,” he said. “But I don’t see it as a racist attack. I just see it as Donald Trump using whatever he can try to diminish his opponents. He’s very effective in that.”
Ager became chairman of the state party last year after the previous chairman, Stephen Stepanek, resigned to take on a job as senior adviser to the Trump campaign. Party rules require the state chair to be neutral in the presidential race.
--With assistance from Margaret Collins, Nancy Cook and Amanda Gordon.
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