With just days until the Iowa caucuses, former President Donald Trump and his team have shifted to targeting GOP presidential rival Nikki Haley as they seek to slow her recent momentum before the first votes are cast this primary season.
The turn to Trump’s one-time ambassador to the United Nations marks a significant change in strategy for the former president and his campaign. The front-runner had spent the better part of the last year solely attacking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had long been considered his top GOP challenger. However, recent polls have shown an unmistakable surge for the former South Carolina governor, particularly in New Hampshire, where a new CNN survey showed Trump’s lead shrinking to single digits.
But even though he has publicly sought to downplay recent polls – and he still holds a commanding lead over the GOP field elsewhere – Trump’s team is taking Haley’s rise seriously, with the former president homing in on her stances on immigration as he seeks to emphasize his own hardline proposals.
During a series of campaign events in Iowa last weekend, Trump leveled his sharpest attacks on Haley yet. And after stopping all ad buys attacking DeSantis, Trump’s campaign launched its first television ad directly taking on Haley on immigration in the Granite State last week. The leading super PAC supporting Trump released its version on the same topic on Monday. Together, they are spending a combined $4.5 million on ads attacking Haley in New Hampshire, attempting to tie her to President Joe Biden’s policies and criticizing her rhetoric on immigration. A Trump adviser said to expect a continued focus on immigration, as they believe it is a top issue for voters in the state.
Trump has made border security and curbing illegal immigration a key part of his White House bid and has escalated his anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent campaign speeches and social media posts.
The Trump campaign blasted out an email on Monday highlighting Haley’s opposition to the travel ban Trump imposed on several Muslim-majority countries while president — a ban he’s vowed to reinstate if elected in 2024 — pointing to Haley’s comments in 2015 that Americans shouldn’t describe illegal immigrants as criminals, and falsely claiming Haley opposed the construction of a border wall.
“Just because President Trump says something doesn’t make it true,” Haley fired back during a Fox town hall this week. “He’s taking snippets of things I said. I said, ‘You shouldn’t just do the border wall. You have to do more than that.’ That’s what I said.”
Trump advisers, in interviews with CNN, push back on the notion that there has been a change in strategy.
“President Trump has always said that he’s going to train his sights on whoever is in second place,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told CNN. “Now as [DeSantis] plummets towards single digits … Nikki Haley just happens to be in second place.”
Trump’s attack lines from the weekend reveal his focus.
“Nikki Haley has been in the pocket of the open border establishment donors her entire career,” he told a crowd in Sioux Center. “She is a globalist. She likes the globe. I like America first.”
Trump went as far as to amplify a post from a far-right outlet falsely claiming Haley was not eligible to run for president and that her parents were not US citizens at the time of her birth. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, was born in South Carolina and, if successful in the primary, would be the first Asian American as well as the first woman nominated by the GOP for president. The attacks echo Trump’s racist lie that he promoted for years that former President Barack Obama was not born in the US and was therefore ineligible to be president.
With a shrinking lead in New Hampshire, Trump’s team hopes a definitive win in Iowa will blunt any momentum Haley has heading into the following contest, New Hampshire.
“Look, everything changes after Iowa. If he puts this away the way he should, that’s going to shift a lot of undecided voters in New Hampshire,” one source close to the campaign told CNN.
Trump’s team has been closely analyzing internal poll numbers in Iowa that showed Haley also gaining ground there.
The team has maintained confidence he will ultimately win the New Hampshire primary later this month and has argued that independents have less sway on the overall GOP primary process. But in New Hampshire, independents have historically made up a greater share of the electorate than in other states.
However, some of his advisers have routinely issued caution about unpredictable independent voters in the state.
During a September campaign event in Iowa, one senior adviser expressed delight when sent a New Hampshire poll that had Trump running away with the race.
“And that’s the state that we’re not doing good in!”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify details about the share of independents in New Hampshire’s electorate.