Granite State political professionals tell NHJournal Nikki Haley’s decision not to participate in the ABC/WMUR debate that was scheduled for Thursday at St. Anselm College is a mistake — one that may hurt her in the First in the Nation presidential primary.
“I think it’s a monumentally stupid move,” said GOP campaign veteran Michael Dennehy. “Now is the time when she needs to drive independent voter turnout and use every media source available. She has chosen to duck the debate for fear of losing to DeSantis as she did last week.
“She will live to regret the decision because many independents are just starting to pay attention,” Dennehy said.
Haley’s argument is simple: She wants to debate the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, as part of her campaign strategy of making the presidential primary a two-person race. Tuesday morning radio talk host Jack Heath asked Haley if she would commit to participating in the debate.
“Is Donald Trump going to be there?” Haley shot back.
She dismissed the argument that she’s unwilling to debate out of fear of facing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, telling Heath, “I’ve debated Ron five times already. I don’t need to debate him again. I’m going after the frontrunner.”
“If Trump gets on that stage, then I’m on that stage. Why would I debate anyone other than the person I want to defeat? I’m not going to debate people who are in single digits.”
As a result, the long-anticipated debate has been canceled, and there will not be a pre-primary faceoff of the candidates in New Hampshire.
WMUR and ABC News released a joint statement announcing the news.
“Our intent was to host a debate coming out of the Iowa caucuses, but we always knew that would be contingent on the candidates and the outcome of the race. As a result, while our robust election coverage will continue, ABC News and WMUR-TV will not be moving forward with Thursday’s Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire.”
DeSantis called Haley out.
“We were supposed to have a debate on WMUR on Thursday night. I committed to it, she’s now saying she’s not going to debate, and I understand why,” DeSantis said, claiming Haley’s campaign has her “hermetically sealed” because “she’s got this problem with ‘ballistic podiatry:’ Shooting herself in the foot.”
“Granite Staters are going to see that and say, ‘Wait — you’re not even going to do a debate in New Hampshire?’ That’s not going to fly,” DeSantis said, adding that Haley is going to lose the primary to Trump.
On CNN Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu defended Haley’s decision as “absolutely” the right move.
“This is a one-on-one race. Donald Trump is chicken. He won’t get on the stage. He’s afraid to be called out and asked questions. He doesn’t want to engage with voters,” Sununu said.
Calling Haley “tough as nails,” Sununu said that if Trump were willing to debate, “Nikki would be there literally right now. And if he weren’t so chicken, he’d get on the stage — Man up!”
But for some political experts, the mistake isn’t dodging DeSantis, it’s missing an opportunity to move voters into Haley’s camp.
“I think she should take advantage of every opportunity to reach out to New Hampshire voters,” said veteran Granite State politico Tom Rath, though he acknowledged that it’s possible that “without Trump, the debate won’t get much of an audience.”
“The real issue here is Trump’s refusal to attend any of the debates with any of the field. But voters don’t seem terribly bothered by that, so Haley has some cover.”
Pat Griffin, who’s worked on multiple GOP presidential campaigns, sees an opportunity cost to Haley’s decision. During a post-Iowa roundtable hosted by NHJournal, he said debates had served Haley well, particularly in comparison to DeSantis.
“He’s a very pretty accomplished governor. When you look at him, he’s a pretty sharp politician,” Griffin said of DeSantis. “But he’s not a likable guy. This is a guy who has a very hard time connecting. Nikki Haley, on the other hand … has been pretty good in these debates. She’s been, I think, fairly formative. She’s a candidate made for New Hampshire.”
Other New Hampshire Republicans aren’t convinced. They point to Haley’s less-than-stellar performance in her head-to-head against DeSantis in the Iowa debate.
“That debate probably cost her second place in Iowa, and she knows it,” one Republican strategist said on background. “DeSantis knows his stuff, and she didn’t. She can’t afford to lose any ground in New Hampshire, so she’s hiding.”
Another political veteran was more blunt when told the news about Haley’s decision.
“It’s dumb. She’s behind.”