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Is Nikki Haley Really ‘the Comeback Kid’?

A lot has changed since 1992. And Nikki Haley is probably no Bill Clinton.

Nikki Haley Campaigns In New Hampshire After Announcing Presidential Bid

When Bill Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary to Paul Tsongas in 1992, the Arkansas governor quickly ran to the cameras at the peak of his performance to declare himself the real winner.

Clinton had exceeded expectations in defeat. He had won a baby boomer participation trophy. It put him on a path to the nomination.

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Nikki Haley surely had this history in mind when she delivered a concession that sounded more like a victory speech after defying the pollsters in New Hampshire. Despite her relative youth compared to Joe Biden and Donald Trump, she is old enough to remember Clinton’s gambit.

Tsongas was not a former president heavily favored in all the upcoming states, however. More importantly, primary coverage is no longer dominated by the 11 o’clock news on election night and the next morning’s newspaper headlines, all containing “Comeback Kid” references from eight hours before.

While the age of Johnny Carson was preferable to today’s media environment in many ways, the steady drip of the modern news cycle is more conducive to shifting thoughts about the results: Early exit polls that made it look possible Haley might win, followed by early results that showed her closing to within single digits of Trump, followed then by Trump’s lead growing to double digits.

By the next day, some of the glow surrounding Haley’s stronger than expected showing had begun to fade with the realization that in close to ideal circumstances, with a huge number of independent voters coming to her rescue, she still lost. She is not on track to win anywhere for the foreseeable future, except for a Nevada primary where Trump is not on the ballot and that awards no delegates. So now what?

Haley is running against that question as much as she is running against Trump. There is a month until the next competitive primary in her home state of South Carolina, where Trump has a healthy lead. Whether the race continues in any meaningful sense depends largely on whether she can milk whatever momentum can be gained from winning 43 percent of the vote in New Hampshire—or if instead this is just a month for the futility of her campaign to set in, especially for prospective donors.

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What Haley can do is run as the candidate of the more than 40 percent of Republicans, if her New Hampshire supporters can be described as such, who have rejected Trump in the first two nominating contests. They will need a voice in this process, it will be said, not simply a coronation. There are a lot of states where people haven’t voted yet. Anything can happen!

Such thoughts were surely bounced around at Ron DeSantis campaign headquarters in the aftermath of his second-place finish in Iowa before he concluded it was better to quit while he was ahead, or at least less behind. The series of single-digit showings that were awaiting surely wasn’t going to be helpful for 2028.

Haley is not in such dire straits. She lost what may be her best state, but not by 30 points. And despite the derision from political reporters not old enough to remember Ronald Reagan that greeted DeSantis’ warnings against painting with pale pastels, there is a sharper contrast here than whether you want to take your Trumpism neat or with a heavy dose of water. (Pat Buchanan can tell you how they treated a more civilized version of Trump.)

Trump’s former United Nations ambassador is offering Republicans a chance to turn the page back to George W. Bush and John McCain. (Things were once so grim that those were the only real choices Republicans had, and Bush was the one who supposedly had the humble foreign policy.)

Whatever Trump’s flaws, and the inherent risks of running a general election candidate who is under multiple indictments, most Republicans do not appear ready to board that particular time machine. Haley’s savvier supporters generally do not like the Bush-McCain comparisons. Haley herself has taken to insisting on the campaign trail that she is not a warmonger.

Trump will over the next month face the temptation of wrapping this race up by offering Haley a place on his ticket if she drops out. Neither appears inclined to accept this arrangement today, but that could change once the steady drip of the new cycle continues for another couple of weeks.

Haley may find it enticing to serve as vice president to a distracted man who will be term-limited out of running in 2028. Or she might be convinced that Trump will lose. She may also simply look at poor Mike Pence and say to herself, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

For his part, Trump might look at the fact that the main candidate running against his populist rebranding of the Republican Party is someone he gave a job to last time before granting her a more important one in a second term. Does he want to travel in the time machine his voters are rejecting?

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