Nikki Haley won the debate stage. Now, she’s trying to take on Iowa. | ET REALITY


About 15 minutes after Nikki Haley took the stage at a town hall in a Des Moines suburb on Saturday, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations was interrupted, twice, by men demanding to know her opinion on Taylor Swift.

Members of the crowd booed and both interrogators were escorted out. Haley, who often tells audiences in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that she is no stranger to dealing with hostile actors, took a moment.

Then she smiled.

“Remember how blessed we are to have freedom of speech in this country,” he said, looking out at the crowd. Then, after some applause, Haley returned to her message about slashing federal spending.

Haley’s command in moments like these, in front of crowds and in the first two Republican debates (during which she successfully avoided interruptions and delivered pithy, memorable one-liners) has generated buzz, attention and money.

But her successes, while notable, are limited: She and the rest of the group trail former President Donald J. Trump in the polls. And both nationally and in No. 1 Iowa, she trails Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

To boost her chances, Haley is betting on events like Saturday’s town hall, an intimate gathering of about 150 people in a nondescript ballroom adorned with campaign signs.

Ms. Haley put on a kind of political theater in the round, standing on a platform surrounded by audience members on all sides. Dressed casually, Ms. Haley performed more for the crowd than the cameras. She emphasized her small-town origins and nodded to the football team of her alma mater, Clemson. Although her one-liners have challenged some of her rivals, Ms. Haley’s jokes provoked the desired response.

Yet even as she commanded a room largely filled with people inclined to support her, Ms. Haley still had to win over some completely.

Nancy Vaught, of West Des Moines, said she was impressed with Ms. Haley’s performance in the debates and was drawn to her experience, particularly her background in international affairs. “Our world is in a really desperate situation,” Vaught said, “and we need someone to take control and be able to deal with the international world.”

But Vaught also said he had not ruled out the other candidate with international experience in the race: Trump.

The former president and his team appear to be considering Haley as a more serious contender. During Wednesday’s debate, the Trump campaign sent out a press release attacking her for not being conservative enough.

On Friday, Trump attacked Haley on Truth Social, his social media platform, referring to her as a “brain” and criticizing her for running despite having said Fox News in February that “I’m glad you’re running, I want you to follow your heart.”

Ms. Haley seemed to take the broadside in stride and posted a screenshot in X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, with the caption: “I love this. It means we are in second place and moving forward quickly! She added: “Bring it!”

Although Haley, 51, did not criticize Trump by name at her town hall in Clive, she did criticize the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill he signed in 2020. She also said Republicans needed “a leader new generational conservative” if they wanted to win the popular vote in 2024. Trump, 77, did not win it in 2016 or 2020.

With Trump the clear favorite, Haley’s campaign has been trying to court Republicans who oppose her reappointment or are concerned about her electability in an at-large race.

Charlie Johnson, 69, who attended Clive’s event, said he initially endorsed DeSantis before the governor made “mistakes” that “dissuaded me from him.”

Johnson, of Council Bluffs, pointed to a controversy over Florida’s standards for teaching about slavery in schools and DeSantis’ rhetorical promise to begin “throat cutting” if elected, a reference to his plans to dismantle the federal bureaucracy.

Haley’s performance in the debates, Johnson said, had partially convinced him. But her experience helped seal the deal.

“I got off the DeSantis train,” Johnson said. “And I really liked Nikki, so that’s where I am now.”

However, DeSantis shares many of the same elements of Haley’s speech (his age, his political experience and his history in a governor’s mansion).

Haley’s advisers will attend a meeting of a mega-donor network next month, where they and DeSantis advisers are expected to make a pitch to those considering whether it may be worth investing in a candidate other than Trump.

But at Clive, Ms. Haley focused primarily on winning the audience over to her, telling them that she would not shy away from hard truths and that she would not dodge questions, not even those from hecklers.

“I think we should give it to these guys who showed up,” he said, about 20 minutes after his speech was interrupted. “Yes, I like Taylor Swift.”

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