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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Leubsdorf: Warning signs loom for Trump

N.H. results illustrate underlying problems even in victory

By Carl P. Leubsdorf
Published: January 27, 2024, 6:01am

With his solid New Hampshire victory, Donald Trump has the Republican nomination within his grasp. But the results showed he faces some big problems down the line — though probably not from rival Nikki Haley,

The former South Carolina governor’s final push enabled her to outperform late polls, but she still lost to Trump by double digits. That raised doubts she could beat him elsewhere, though she vowed to press on.

“This race is far from over,” Haley claimed Tuesday night, noting the next big contest is Feb. 24 in “my sweet state of South Carolina.” She called it “a great night,” a comment mocked by Trump. “She lost,” he said.

But South Carolina polls show her trailing Trump by more than 20 points, and she may have difficulty sustaining her campaign for the next month.

Meanwhile, though Trump took another big step toward his third consecutive GOP nomination, some aspects of the results illustrated his underlying problems.

Exit polls showed continuing resistance to the GOP front-runner among moderate and independent suburban voters, who mostly backed Haley. Self-styled moderates voted for the former South Carolina governor by 3 to 1, and most said they would be dissatisfied by a Trump nomination. And nearly half the primary voters — including one-fourth of all Republicans — said they would regard Trump as unfit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime.

To some degree, the responses reflected the fact that the New Hampshire GOP electorate is less conservative than Iowa’s. But it also showed that concerns within his own party about the array of indictments facing Trump could become a significant factor in the general election — if he is convicted. Given the likelihood of a close race in November, even a small drop-off in Trump’s Republican support could be fatal to his hopes. It’s one reason he is so eager to delay the various trials he faces until after the 2024 election.

Those voter concerns were underscored by a surprisingly candid analysis of the situation by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, just days after he suspended his own campaign and endorsed Trump.

“When I have people come up to me who voted for (former President Ronald) Reagan and have been conservative their whole life say they don’t want to vote for Trump again, that’s a problem,” DeSantis said in an interview with conservative radio host Steve Deace. He called it “a huge warning sign” for the GOP.

Still, by winning in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump became just the second Republican in a competitive race — and the fifth candidate overall — to sweep the first two contests. Ironically, though all went on to capture their party’s nominations, the only one to win the general election was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The other Republican was former President Gerald Ford, who narrowly edged Reagan in New Hampshire in 1976 after winning easily in Iowa. But what happened after New Hampshire in that race may offer some encouragement for Haley.

Ford won the next four primaries after New Hampshire, and Reagan’s candidacy hung by a thread when the GOP race reached North Carolina on March 23, 1976. With the aid of Sen. Jesse Helms’ conservative machine, Reagan upset Ford, re-energizing his campaign and ensuring the race would continue to the Republican convention that August in Kansas City.

Ford ultimately beat Reagan by the narrowest of margins — 43 of the 2,259 delegates. But he lost to Carter in November, in part because Reagan gave him only lukewarm support, and the former movie star-turned-California-governor won the presidency four years later.

Haley’s challenge seems more overwhelming than Reagan’s. He was facing an unelected president who had never run a national campaign. She is facing the man who has dominated the GOP for eight years and has made two national races.

Meanwhile, it is becoming evident that even some Republicans who have been less than enthusiastic about Trump are eager to get on with trying to unseat President Joe Biden. Networks had barely called Tuesday’s race for Trump when one of the holdouts, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, issued a statement backing the former president.

“I have seen enough,” the Texas senator said. “To beat Biden, Republicans need to unite around a single candidate, and it’s clear that President Trump is Republican voters’ choice.”

But it may take one more defeat — in South Carolina — for the message to get through to Nikki Haley.