By Nathan Layne, James Oliphant and Gram Slattery
ROCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) – At a campaign speech in an American Legion hall in New Hampshire last week, Nikki Haley animatedly warned the U.S. must prepare for a war with China.
Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President Donald Trump, rattled off the size of the Chinese navy, warned of China’s advances in artificial intelligence and hypersonic missiles, and worried about the development of “neurostrike” weapons that can scramble the brains of military commanders in the field.
China has been preparing for war with the U.S. for years, Haley told the crowd of about 100 people gathered on an icy night in Rochester. It needed to be treated like an “enemy,” not a “competitor,” and the U.S. was not ready, she said.
“We’ve barely gotten started,” she said.
Trump, who leads Haley in the Republican presidential nominating battle, has taken an entirely different tack in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday. At rallies across the state, he tells voters that he alone can keep the nation out of “World War Three” and defends his relationships with some of the world’s most authoritarian rulers, including China’s Xi Jinping.
With just two candidates left in the Republican race, the New Hampshire vote pits the most hawkish in Haley against the more isolationist Trump, who would rather avoid foreign entanglements in keeping with an “America First” approach.
Trump is favored to win the primary, while Haley is hoping to draw enough support to argue that she is a viable threat to Trump going forward. The nominee will face President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the Nov. 5 general election.
Foreign policy normally does not assume a large role in U.S. presidential elections, where domestic concerns are at the forefront of voters’ minds. But with war in Ukraine still raging, Israel battling Hamas in Gaza, and China signaling a more aggressive posture in Asia, these are not normal times.
“The world is on fire,” Haley likes to say at her events.
According to a Monmouth University/Washington Post poll of potential primary voters released on Monday, Trump is more trusted on foreign policy over Haley by a margin of 57% to 32%.
Jennifer Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said at a roundtable on Monday that Haley’s approach might appeal to centrists and moderates but that the bulk of the party under Trump has become isolationist.
“I don’t think it’s won her any votes,” Horn said. “It’s like Nikki Haley is the old Republican Party and Donald Trump is the current Republican Party.”
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Given her background in international affairs, Haley spends much of her stump speech contending that the U.S. needs to take a strong position standing up to China, Russia and Iran. She warns that failure to aid Ukraine will allow Russia’s Vladimir Putin to invade NATO countries like Poland.
She spent much of the weekend in New Hampshire slamming Trump for his past praise of China’s Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. She accused Trump of having a “bromance” with Putin.
Last year, China criticized Haley over her threats to drastically limit Sino-U.S. trade relations, saying those who drew attention by “smearing and blame-shifting” in the election campaign would end up on the “ash heap of history.”
As part of her closing argument in the state, Haley’s campaign is running a TV ad that details the story of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died in 2017 after being imprisoned in North Korea.
Haley championed Warmbier’s release. After his death, Haley says, Trump started sending “love letters” to Kim.
Trump in turn has cast Haley as a “warmonger” who will drag the U.S. into a foreign conflict just as the country has finally exited Afghanistan. He has been skeptical of further aid to Ukraine and has been a longstanding critic of NATO.
“People that want to go have wars all the time. Nikki’s one of them. She’s one of them,” he said. “’Let’s kill people all over the place, and let’s make a lot of money for those people that make the missiles.'”
At rallies, Trump has argued that his close relationships with authoritarian leaders is “smart” and that his bond with Kim prevented a nuclear war with North Korea. As president, he says, he will immediately end the war in Ukraine, but has not detailed how.
“We will restore peace through strength,” Trump said at a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Sunday. “I will prevent World War Three.”
Kai Taggersell, a 34-year-old Trump supporter, said Haley’s stances on foreign policy are one of the reasons he can’t back her. He sees her as a “Bush-era” Republican keen to jump into wars.
“I’ve lost friends who went to war and came back and are now passed away. They took their own lives and died from overdoses,” said Taggersell, a Maine resident who attended the Rochester rally.
“We just don’t want to keep doing it,” he added. “America hasn’t benefited at all.”
Others have responded to her hardline approach.
Orde Kittrie, a former U.S. State Department attorney, waved a Haley sign outside her event at a hall for war veterans in the small town of Franklin on Monday.
“Foreign policy is an important issue for me,” he said. “She’s much more respectful of allies… She’s somebody who stands by our friends in Ukraine and Israel and NATO.”
At the same event, Lee Sickles, 59, a registered independent, said he was planning to vote for Trump.
“It should scare anyone. We don’t belong over in Ukraine,” Sickles said. “Putin didn’t start anything. He’s defending his nation.”
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Rochester, New Hampshire, James Oliphant in Manchester, New Hampshire and Gram Slattery in Franklin, New Hampshire; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Deepa Babington)
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