‘Pile of bulls--t’: New Hampshire GOPers give Haley a pass on Civil War remarksDecember 28, 2023
LEBANON, New Hampshire — Republican voters in New Hampshire seemed poised to give Nikki Haley a pass after she declined to identify slavery as a cause of the Civil War at a New Hampshire town hall Wednesday night.
Appearing at the former U.N. ambassador’s events the next day, several attendees said the remarks were overblown. Some were willing to adopt the Haley campaign’s explanation that it was a set up by Democrats to elevate her primary opponent, Donald Trump.
“That was a pile of bullshit. Okay, there was somebody planted in that audience, in my opinion,” said Robin Smith, a Republican from Bridgewater. “It had to be somebody that wanted to try to make her look bad.”
Haley was “dead on,” Becky Turner, a Republican from Lincoln, said. “They made a mountain out of a molehill.”
A rush to Haley’s defense from her rally attendees may have been expected. But it was also a relief for the campaign, which appeared in for a day of cleanup after Haley told a town hall questioner it was the role of government (as opposed to slavery) that was responsible for the Civil War.
On a radio show early Thursday, Haley accused the questioner of being a “Democratic plant” put there to ensure that she faltered. At an event later, she said that slavery was certainly a cause of America’s deadliest war, arguing that it was so obvious that she didn’t think it needed to be said.
Few, if any, of Haley’s critics argued that she, an Indian-American daughter of immigrants who as governor took down the confederate flag in South Carolina, harbored deep-seated racial animus. But her opponents seized on the moment to ding Haley as she climbs in the polls.
“It’s about slavery,” President Joe Biden posted on X, alongside a clip of the exchange.
“If she can’t handle a question as basic as the cause of the Civil War, what does she think is going to happen to her in a general election,” Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote on X Thursday. “The Democrats would eat her lunch.”
But at a Thursday afternoon town hall in Plymouth, several Republican primary voters said they were unfazed.
“Everybody knows [the Civil War] was about slavery, and what else can you say about it?,” said Alison Bolt, a self-described moderate Republican from Littleton. “Frankly, I’m sick to death of hearing about these issues. I’m sick to death of hearing about, you know, racist kinds of things and transgender things. I want to get back to things that are going to help or destroy this country.”
While Haley was given the benefit of the doubt from many who came out to see her on Thursday, others took issue with what they said her remarks suggested about her reading of the audience: that Republican voters might have objected to her saying slavery was the cause of America’s deadliest war.
“To say the role of government — that’s like a footnote,” Edward Rolfe, an Independent from Franconia, said.
“If she’s saying it to take the attention off racial issues or try to redefine the historical context of it, I find it sophomoric.”
Later on Thursday, fellow Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie made a similar point during a town hall-style event in Epping. The former New Jersey governor said that while he doesn’t think Haley is racist — “I know her well, and I don’t believe Nikki has a racist bone in her body” — he believed that made her comments “worse.”
She was “dishonest with people,” he said, “that’s what’s happening here.”
“I’m sure Nikki will see this, so I want to talk directly to her,” Christie said. “The Civil War was not a choice between change and tradition. It was a choice between right and wrong, and that’s it. And we’ve got to stand on the side of right.”
The response to Haley’s initial remarks served as a reminder of the pitfalls that can often confront candidates in New Hampshire’s famed town hall settings. Haley has been running a relatively mistake-free campaign that has seen her turn standout debate performances into consistent growth in the polls. Her team had hoped to use the closing weeks of the primary to separate her from the rest of the non-Trump field so as to turn the election into a one-on-one contest.
Though the gaffe could hurt Haley down the road, it’s unlikely to sway Republicans in New Hampshire, said Dave Carney, a veteran GOP strategist based in the state.
“To undecided voters, it may be a bit off-putting,” he said. “But the question is, where do they go?”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu joined Haley, who he has endorsed, at each of her campaign stops Thursday, making the case to voters that the former South Carolina governor has turned the primary into a two-person race between her and Trump.
Sununu was eager to push past the blunder.
“The civil war is about slavery. She acknowledged it. Moving on,” he said.
Lisa Kashinsky contributed to this report.