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Nikki Haley Is Forced to Go on Defense as Trump Ups Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- Nikki Haley rode into Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses with momentum - and some rich donors - on her side. Billionaire Charles Koch’s political network had put down $4 million, and was promising more. Even social-media warrior Bill Ackman was a fan.

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But after her disappointing third-place finish behind Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, the only woman among the Republican candidates is under pressure before next week’s contest in New Hampshire. Sensing weakness, Haley’s rivals are slinging taunts and attacks her way. Rich backers are watching closely.

Haley’s staffers are telling donors that her 19% result in Iowa was actually a success, given her single-digit ratings there earlier in the campaign. Still, Haley declined a debate invitation. She had the New Hampshire campaign trail to herself Thursday, but both Trump and DeSantis have scheduled events Friday.

“I was happy with that,” she told reporters at MaryAnn’s Diner in Amherst, New Hampshire on Friday, referring to the Iowa result. “I said we want to be stronger in New Hampshire. We’re going to do that.”

Her campaign is touting polls showing her within striking distance of Trump in New Hampshire, but other surveys put the gap at double digits.

Trump, meanwhile, has stepped up attacks on Haley in recent days, even promoting a false claim that she’s not entitled to run for the presidency despite being born in the US to Indian-immigrant parents. His campaign also is running radio ads accusing her of wanting to raise the age for receiving social security.

Haley brushed off the claims as “lies.”

“He’s insecure, he knows that something’s wrong,” she said.

But Haley — fearful of alienating his loyal supporters — has avoided attacking the former president so directly, limiting her criticism to references to the “chaos” of his presidency, as well as his age and the need for a younger leader.

“I just don’t see any evidence that this is turning into a super-competitive situation,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “She’s not willing to take him on, unaffiliated voters are just not getting engaged.”

This isn’t the scenario Haley had been hoping for. She didn’t even have to win Iowa — no one doubted Trump was going to triumph in the first contest for the Republican nomination. All she needed was a strong showing to sustain her into New Hampshire a week later, where a win or a close second would carry her through the next big contest in South Carolina (Trump leads there) and into the more competitive races of Super Tuesday on March 5.

But when the results came in, the best Haley could do was talk about a “two-person race” - drawing ridicule on social media and television.

Haley and her backers say they are counting on New Hampshire voters, who data show are more educated and less socially conservative than Iowa’s. In addition, independents, who make up the biggest share of the electorate, are allowed to participate in the Republican primary.

But even at the diner where Haley stopped Friday morning, some voters were skeptical.

“I look at Trump’s strength and I don’t know if she has that to handle the border wall and cutting taxes and really stepping in and being strong about it,” said Charlene Shelsky, a 64-year-old retiree from Nashua. ”I think she’s a little weak.”

A disappointing finish in New Hampshire would be a major blow to Haley’s chances and help clear the way for Trump to lock up the nomination. In deeply conservative South Carolina, she’s far behind the former president in the polls, despite her years as a popular governor.

Friday brought another setback as former candidate Tim Scott, who Haley appointed to his senate seat when she was governor, endorsed Trump.

Tim Scott to Endorse Trump in Boost Days Before New Hampshire

Still, Haley’s campaign raised $24 million in the fourth quarter, her biggest yet, and some major donors say they remain in her camp. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is continuing to buy ads supporting her. Its workers have already brought her message to 210,000 New Hampshire voters and are still knocking on doors. The group said Friday its internal polling puts Haley within a few points of Trump.

Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of the Home Depot chain who’s been one of her major backers, will continue his support no matter what the outcome Tuesday, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Earlier Thursday, the Financial Times reported that he’s likely to wait until after the New Hampshire results before committing more money.

But other big names like Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman are still on the sidelines. Even before Iowa, Ackman had moved on to long-shot Democrat Dean Phillips.

--With assistance from Laura Davison, Gregory Korte and Bill Allison.

(Updates with Haley, voter quotes from fourth paragraph. A previous version of this article was corrected to reflect that Americans For Prosperity had contacted 210,000 voters in New Hampshire.)

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