MERRIMACK, N.H. — Nikki Haley is finally getting a bounce in New Hampshire. It’s just not the one she wants.

Republicans who packed into the former South Carolina governor’s events here in recent days described her as “very smart” and a “natural leader.” They “admire” her work at the United Nations. They even think she “has a good chance” in 2024.

The problem, Merrimack, N.H., Republican Carol Holman said from behind a table covered with red, white and blue campaign signs at a recent Haley for president event, is that chance is “probably as vice president.”

In a state that built its political identity as a presidential proving ground, Donald Trump’s commanding lead in the GOP primary is turning the 2024 campaign on its head. It pains Granite Staters to say it. But from the back rows of town halls to the vinyl booths of the state’s famed diners, New Hampshire voters are starting to give voice to a new reality — and a growing fear among the former president’s critics — that their vetting is no longer truly for the top of the ticket.

The Republican activists and politically curious who turn out for campaign events in the first primary state are now grading candidates on a lower curve — as the person next in line should Trump implode, or, more realistically at this juncture, as his running mate.

“If constitutionally he can still run for president, I don’t know how anybody is going to beat him,” Salem, N.H., Republican Paul Durand said.

Durand was a “big Trump supporter” in 2020. Now he likes Haley. Still, the reality of the 2024 race weighed on his mind as he shared the question he wanted to ask at Haley’s Merrimack town hall last week: Would she be Trump’s running mate, if it came to it?

“I would hope she would say yes,” Durand said.

In a year with more parity in the presidential field, Haley would appear to have real momentum coming off her breakthrough performance in the first presidential debate. And she has seen a bump in recent surveys.

A post-debate NMB Research poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, conducted on behalf of the Competitiveness Coalition and the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, put Haley tied for second place with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — her best showing in a survey here yet. But the support DeSantis and Haley notched, 10 percent apiece, is still leagues behind Trump, at 47 percent.

Haley’s rise is being blunted by the same force dragging down every candidate running behind Trump: Love him or hate him, many Republicans in this critical early state say they’re hard-pressed to see a scenario in which Trump isn’t the GOP nominee for the third consecutive cycle.

Trump, after four criminal indictments, remains immovable atop a field he leads in national and early state surveys by yawning margins. The only change in recent months is that DeSantis, the long-running No. 2 in the race, has fallen back into the pack.

And as lower-polling candidates come through the Granite State, their continued deference to Trump only bolsters the idea among New Hampshire voters that they’re witnessing a race for second place.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur who has campaigned heavily in New Hampshire, has gone so far as to call on his rivals to join him in pledging to pardon Trump if they win the White House and the former president is convicted in any of the myriad criminal cases against him. That level of fealty has left some Republicans here questioning whether Ramaswamy is outright auditioning to be Trump’s next vice president. Trump has been open to the idea. Ramaswamy has said he has no interest in serving as someone’s No. 2.

Tim Scott’s refusal to engage with Trump — or any of his GOP presidential rivals — is raising similar sentiments about the South Carolina senator. Fergus Cullen, a self-described “Never Trump” Republican and former state GOP chair, walked away from a recent town hall featuring Scott disappointed that the senator was playing too nice with Trump.

“He was completely running for vice president,” Cullen said in an interview. “He had nothing offensive to say about anyone. Liked by all, hated by none.”

That lack of combat is leaving even voters who are most eager for a fresh face atop the Republican Party increasingly resigned to shopping for Trump’s second in command. It’s a decision that ultimately will be up to the nominee, not New Hampshire voters. But they can weigh in, and at the moment, it’s Haley who’s generating the most interest.

“There’s no doubt [that] more than any other candidate, fair or unfair, voters view Nikki Haley as a vice presidential candidate,” veteran New Hampshire-based Republican consultant Mike Dennehy said.

“The last debate” — where Haley ripped Trump and several of her onstage rivals for growing the national debt, and was generally more assertive than her typical campaign-trail persona — “was step No. 1 to change those voters’ minds,” Dennehy said.

In response to a request for comment, Haley’s campaign shared a memo it circulated last week, in which campaign manager Betsy Ankney said, “It’s clear that momentum is with Nikki Haley.” She pointed to post-debate polls showing Haley gaining ground in the primary. The campaign also pointed to a CNN poll that showed Haley, in a hypothetical general election matchup, running ahead of President Joe Biden.

Few Republicans in New Hampshire think Haley is actually running for vice president. She’s put in more on-the-ground effort than most candidates here, holding 49 “grassroots events” across all 10 counties, according to her campaign, and recently rolling out a slate of New Hampshire state and county co-chairs.

Haley “is one of the sharpest and most disciplined candidates to ever run” in New Hampshire, said Matthew Bartlett, a GOP consultant and Granite State native. “You don’t do that if you are playing for second or VP.”

Across three town halls last week, voter after voter said they came to see Haley because of the Milwaukee debate. Many praised the foreign policy chops that she burnished as U.N. ambassador under Trump and brandished onstage in a blistering rebuke of Ramaswamy. One voter, Rockingham County Republican Sharon Longshaw, walked away from Haley’s education-themed town hall in Manchester saying the South Carolinian had her primary vote.

Haley herself has shot down speculation she’s running to be someone else’s running mate. “I don’t run for second,” Haley told POLITICO last month.

But even still, Haley acknowledged the unique dynamic of the 2024 primary, in which everyone is asking not just how a lower-tier candidate can win, but whether they’d be willing to run alongside Trump.

“That’s something that I hear all the time,” Haley said. “And I’ll tell you that, look, we have a country to save, and I don’t trust anybody else to do it.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who insists Trump won’t be the GOP nominee, has dismissed the notion that voters in his state are considering which candidates could join the former president on the ticket.

Trump “might have 50 percent in the polls right now” but he “doesn’t have 50 percent locked in,” Sununu told reporters after introducing Haley at her Merrimack town hall. “So there’s a huge opportunity to move 10, 15 points off of him and onto another candidate.”

But with the former president so far ahead, even Republicans who are adamant that they don’t want to vote for him again are growing resigned to the possibility they might have to — and that their role now might be vetting his vice president.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that [Trump] will finally stop being so selfish and step aside,” Ralph Louis, a Republican from Concord, N.H., clad in a Haley campaign T-shirt, said as he waited for her to arrive in Merrimack.

But “it would be a great idea” for Haley to join Trump’s ticket if he doesn’t, Louis said. “I’ve thought of it more than once.”

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