During a joint press conference with Gov. Chris Sununu Tuesday night in Manchester, Nikki Haley sounded like a candidate ready to mix it up with her opponents on a Granite State debate stage.
Asked by NHJournal if she would participate in a local, New Hampshire debate before the First in the Nation primary, Haley said, “I assume we’re going end up having a WMUR debate at some point — or one of the others — but we’re looking at all the options.”
Sununu was even more enthusiastic.
“Every time Nikki Haley does a debate, her poll numbers go up, people get excited, and more people get on board. I say, the more debates, the merrier.”
But on Wednesday, the Haley campaign was noncommittal, taking the same strategy in New Hampshire it has in Iowa: Yes, we want to debate; but no, we’re not ready to commit. That has been Haley’s approach since the Republican National Committee announced it would allow non-RNC-sanctioned debates.
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared his willingness to participate, Haley has been more cautious.
Haley spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas has said Haley will be “debating in Iowa” but also added, “Since the RNC pulled out of the debates, many new offers have come in. We look forward to debating in Iowa and continuing to show voters why Nikki is the best candidate to retire Joe Biden and save our country. That debate should include Donald Trump.”
One reason for hesitancy may be the lack of clarity about the debates themselves. There has been confusion about the rules, the qualification requirements — even whether announced debates are, in fact, going to happen.
For example, CNN stumbled by trying to be first out of the gate, announcing Iowa and New Hampshire debates after news of the RNC’s new approach. It even posted details on its website claiming a debate was scheduled at St. Anslem College in Goffstown, N.H., on January 21.
One problem: Nobody at the college or the New Hampshire GOP knew anything about it.
“They never talked to us,” said Neil Levesque, head of the New Hampshire Institute for Politics at St. Anselm.
CNN originally attempted to blame “miscommunication within Saint Anselm” and insisted the debate was still scheduled. However, it has since removed the information from its website and acknowledged that “the location, originally announced as St. Anselm College, is likely to change.”
It is now considered likely among Granite State political insiders that there won’t be a CNN debate in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, an announced debate at St. Anselm with ABC News and its local affiliate, WMUR, appears to be on track. Multiple sources at the college and in the state GOP have told NHJournal planning for a potential debate has been underway for months — just in case. Now, with the RNC’s new approach, everything is in place. All that’s needed are candidates.
“Our debate partnership is based on airing candidate positions on the issues important to Granite State Republican primary voters. Nobody can do that better than WMUR, St. Anselm College, and the New Hampshire GOP,” state party chair Chris Ager told NHJournal Wednesday night. Ager also emphasized he has been working with the RNC and his fellow debate partners to make sure any WMUR-St. Anselm College debate didn’t run afoul of the national party.
As for a CNN debate in New Hampshire, “I see zero interest,” Ager said. “They just don’t appeal to our voter base.”
DeSantis, who is widely believed to have had his best performance in the most recent debate in Tuscaloosa, Ala., called out Haley during a press call Wednesday over her unwillingness to face off with him in CNN’s Iowa debate, scheduled for January 10.
“I’ve committed to [the debate]. I don’t know that either Donald Trump or Nikki Haley has been willing to commit to a debate. I think if you’re not willing to debate in Iowa on the eve of the caucus, that shows the voters a lot about you and about your willingness to engage on these issues,” DeSantis said. “So I want to debate. I’ll be there.”
Late Wednesday night during an interview on Fox News’ Sean Hannity show, DeSantis doubled down:
“If you [Hannity] want to do other debates–Nikki Haley and me, I’m in. Donald Trump and me, I’m in. So just say the word. You’ve shown that you can do it in a way that I think really helps the voter. So I’m game. Just let me know,” DeSantis said.
CNN has set the threshold for participation at polling 10 percent or higher in three national or Iowa polls, and at least one poll must be from Iowa. Only two candidates besides DeSantis have met that threshold: Trump — who has made it clear he won’t be debating during the GOP primary — and Haley.
If Haley doesn’t participate, there won’t be a debate.
Several Granite State GOP insiders told NHJournal it would be a mistake for Haley not to participate in a WMUR/St. Anselm College debate.
“Trump can do it [not debate] because he has a big lead. Haley’s got momentum, but she can’t afford to coast,” one Republican operative said. “She can’t sit on her lead because she doesn’t have a lead to sit on. She needs to be aggressive.”
As for Trump participating in an Iowa debate, according to Axios, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said, “There’s a CNN debate? Had no idea.”