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A tumultuous last 2023 swing through New Hampshire for Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley walks back Civil War comments
Nikki Haley walks back Civil War comments after backlash 02:21

Controversy and backlash defined Nikki Haley's final swing though New Hampshire in 2023 as she looks to solidify her position as the Trump-alternative candidate. 

As Haley campaigned through the Granite State with Governor Chris Sununu, who recently endorsed her, the former UN ambassador found herself having to walk back and clarify her recent statements on the cause of the United States' Civil War. 

Haley initially failed to mention slavery when a voter asked her what caused the Civil War at a Wednesday town hall, instead saying the conflict was over states' rights and the role of government. 

"Of course the Civil War was about slavery," Haley said at the start of a town hall in North Conway on Thursday. "We know that. That's unquestioned." 

Haley added that the war was about "more than" slavery, echoing her earlier comments. 

Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign town hall event in New Hampshire on December 28, 2023. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

"It was about the freedoms of every individual, it was about the role of government," Haley said. "For 80 years, America had the decision, and the moral question of whether slavery was a good thing and whether the government, economically, culturally, or any other reasons, had a role to play in that." 

As the former South Carolina governor tried to respond to the backlash, other Republican presidential candidates were quick to have their say

"It's not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War and yet that seemed to be something that was really difficult and I don't even know what she was saying," said Florida governor Ron DeSantis during a campaign stop in Ankeney, Iowa on Thursday. His campaign was plagued by a similar controversy earlier this year, when the governor supported a statement in Florida's Social Studies curriculum that suggested slaves gained "personal benefit" from being enslaved. 

Vivek Ramaswamy, who was campaigning in Iowa on Thursday, didn't hold back when a voter asked him to weigh in on Haley's statements. 

"The Civil War is one of these things that speaks itself into existence, actually," Ramaswamy told a crowd in Rockwell, Iowa. "And, you know, your governor of South Carolina doesn't know much about the history of her own state."

Nikki Haley's Civil War comments spark reactions from GOP candidates 05:24

Despite the backlash and the criticism from Haley's GOP rivals, voters who attended Haley's campaign events on Thursday were not swayed by the controversy. The event venues were crowded with enthusiastic Republican voters, many expressing they were listening to her, in person, for the first time. 

"When people bring up the whole Civil War, it's because she's from South Carolina, they probably have some anger that she's a southerner," said Ramona Hodgkins, a history teacher in attendance, adding that focusing on the issues Haley is running on is more important. 

"It was definitely a governmental issue and it's just silly to even consider this," said George Beilin, a New Hampshire voter. "This is embarrassing to the press." 

As presidential candidates are in their last stretch to garner support before the first nominating contests in the nation, 2024 will tell if there are lasting effects of Haley's refusal to mention slavery as the cause of the United States Civil War. 

Voters will continue to press candidates on issues that matter to them, such as was the case during Haley's last town hall on Thursday. A young New Hampshire voter asked Haley to "redeem herself" and pledge she would not accept to be former president Donald Trump's running mate. 

"I don't play for second," Haley responded. 

Aaron Navarro, Jake Rosen, and Taurean Small contributed reporting. 

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