Inside the door-to-door battle to boost Nikki Haley in New Hampshire

MANCHESTER, N.H. — When Ken Chase pondered whom he would vote for in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation GOP presidential primary here, he didn’t see much of a choice at all.

“Well, [former President Donald] Trump seems to be the only choice,” Chase told a door-knocker from Americans for Prosperity Action.

That wasn’t what AFP wanted to hear. The conservative group is going door to door in early-voting states, hoping to convince primary voters to back former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s presidential bid.

But Chase didn’t see Haley breaking through in the Granite State.

“My wife doesn’t like her. I’m neutral,” he said. “Anybody would be better than [President Joe] Biden. I don’t know. I don’t think she can do it.”

One of the biggest moments of Haley’s campaign was when she earned AFP’s official backing late last year. It was an endorsement that, among other benefits, opened up a national network of canvassers who would immediately start knocking on doors across the country in an effort to get Haley, then rising in the polls, over the hump.

And perhaps nowhere was this bolstered ground game more important than in New Hampshire, considered the most favorable early state to her candidacy — though still one where she trails Trump by double digits in statewide surveys. It’s a state with a large number of undeclared voters who have the choice of voting in either a Republican or Democratic primary — the kinds of voters who may be more open to Haley’s brand of conservatism over Trump’s “MAGA” politics.

On Friday, NBC News joined AFP Action as it knocked doors on Haley’s behalf north of Manchester to get a sense of what the organization was up against. Most voters who answered their doors had already made up their mind to vote for either Trump or Haley in Tuesday’s election. About a half dozen voters AFP Action reached at their doors said they either were already backing Haley or were open to supporting her, a little more than half of those who answered at their doorstep.

“Not f—— Trump,” said Chris Kordas, a military veteran who said he would support Haley, when asked at his door about the election. “Not Trump. Anybody but Trump.”

Kordas ultimately said he didn’t care whether it was a Democrat or Republican who won the presidency this fall so long as they were “a good person.” Trump didn’t fit that bill.

“He lies and lies more and lies more,” he said. “He’s in and out of the courts all the time, and everybody thinks it’s not” because of his own actions.

Kordas said in his neighborhood, he has received a lot of pushback from neighbors for not supporting Trump, adding that one person said he was a “disgrace to the uniform” for criticizing the former president. Pointing at this race, he took note of Trump changing his tune about Haley’s effectiveness, criticizing her now after earlier praising her as his ambassador to the United Nations.

“He said Nikki Haley does a great job,” he said. “Now look what he says about her. He trusted her.”

As she campaigns across New Hampshire, Haley seeks to convince the broader Republican electorate that she’s more than a choice for those who hold the former president in low esteem. Her backers at AFP Action sought to hammer that point home, too.

At a Friday-morning press conference, Greg Moore, regional director for AFP Action, said his organization sees her pulling from both conservatives and moderates.

“Some of the narrative is that it’s all moderates for Haley and all conservatives for Trump. I know that’s not true,” he said.

Elaine Lanoie, a Manchester voter who is voting Republican on Tuesday, said when reached at her door Friday that she viewed Haley as a credible conservative. But, she said, she was still “100% for Trump.”

“Based on what he did when he was in office,” she said in explaining her Trump support. “I know he’s egotistical. I know he’s very, you know, doesn’t speak well. But he got the job done.”

AFP Action, as Moore laid out, has contacted more than 210,000 people in New Hampshire since the group’s post-Thanksgiving endorsement, fanning out 100 volunteers across the state to hit doors and make phone calls.

But as Haley’s allies began talking about how a strong second-place finish would amount to victory for her here, Moore said, “If Trump wins by 1 point, I don’t think that knocks Haley out by any stretch of the imagination.”

“It’s game on,” he said.

Door-knocking has taken center-stage in this Republican presidential primary, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ primary outside backers, the super PAC Never Back Down, putting it at the center of its multimillion-dollar strategy to help elect him. But for DeSantis, it hadn’t produced the intended results. After a second-place finish in Iowa — ahead of Haley — he dropped out of the race on Sunday and endorsed Trump.

Trump has had advantages over both when it comes to the ground game. Trump’s aim is merely to turn out as many existing Trump supporters as possible, while his rivals must not only seek to turn out voters, but to convince them to shift toward their candidate. As Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, told NBC News last month, “Our opponents are put in this awkward spot of trying to get people to actually go and change their vote and go in a different direction, which is a much heavier lift.”

Just how effective Republican canvassing efforts are continues to come under scrutiny, too. A wide-ranging NBC News investigation this year found some large-scale conservative canvassing efforts were plagued with issues that included fraudulent and untrustworthy data entries, though Republicans insist on the practice’s usefulness when properly executed.

Justin Wilson, the grassroots engagement director for AFP Action New Hampshire who took NBC News on the door-knocking tour Friday, said he’s been really encouraged by the conversations he’s been able to have with voters across the state. He feels that enough voters are buying into Haley’s message about the need to limit “chaos” and give the party its best chance to win in November. (In Iowa, NBC News entrance polling found that just 11% of Iowa’s Republican caucusgoers felt the ability to beat Biden was their top consideration when backing a candidate.)

“At the end of the day, it’s about trying to win,” he said. “And I would say that for a very long time, Republicans have leaned towards not wanting to win. … I don’t think now is a great time to try and make anything as contested as it can possibly be. We really need to go all in on a good, solid candidate. And I don’t think that that candidate is Donald Trump.”

With Trump dominating primary polls nationally and across early states, some Haley supporters have contemplated the choice they may have to make this fall: Trump or Biden.

“Not happy,” Joanne, a Haley supporter, said of how she’d feel about a prospective Trump-vs.-Biden rematch when reached at her door Friday. “I will not vote for Biden. So I would have to vote for Trump, which I’m not happy about either. But it’s going to be [a] Republican.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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