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Nikki Haley and Chris Christie on collision course in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary

GOP candidates' final push before Iowa caucus
Republican candidates' final push ahead of Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary 03:44

For two Republican presidential candidates facing a desperate moment in their attempts to overcome former President Donald Trump's frontrunner status in the GOP primary field, this week has already provided a stark contrast. 

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sparked stinging pushback after she avoided talking about slavery on Wednesday in Berlin, New Hampshire, when a voter asked  what she thought caused the Civil War. The flub went viral and gained more attention.  

Around that same time, a sparse ad from Chris Christie's campaign was publicly rolled out in which the former New Jersey governor honed his verbal attacks on Trump. 

"He caused a riot on Capitol Hill," Christie said in the direct to camera ad. "He'll burn America to the ground to help himself. Every Republican leader says that in private. I'm the only one saying it in public. What kind of president do we want, a liar or someone who's got the guts to tell the truth? New Hampshire. It's up to you." 

Haley and Christie are on a collision course in New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary as both candidates seek to benefit from the state's quirky electorate where undeclared voters, who make up a major portion of the state's voters, can decide to cast ballots in the GOP primary on Jan. 23. 

Election 2024 Debate
Republican presidential candidates, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, talking with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, during a commercial break at a Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Gerald Herbert / AP

"Telling the truth isn't hard — particularly when you believe in what you are saying," a source close to Christie replied." The simplicity of Christie's ad and message conveys that when you believe in what you are saying, telling the truth is easy."

New Hampshire is likely the best chance for any Trump challenger to dent his standing early on, and Haley has seen a clear momentum according to a recent CBS News poll that had her in second behind the former president. 

In a campaign whose main focus is litigating Trump's faults and failures, Christie has staked his primary ambitions on a strong showing in New Hampshire. He hasn't shied away from his past support for the former president, but has made emphatic warnings about what Trump being the GOP nominee could mean for the party moving forward.  

That tactic has earned him support in the first-in-the-nation primary state. Haley has relied on a more delicate approach to taking on Trump, who appointed her as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during his presidency.

In recent months, Christie has ramped up criticism of Haley over her reluctance to tell the "truth" on various issues including Trump's fitness to serve as president again and her position on abortion.

At a town hall event Thursday night in Epping, N.H., Christie knocked Haley over her comments on the cause of the Civil War.

"She's smart and she knows better. And she didn't say it because she's a racist because she's not. I know her well and I don't believe Nikki has a racist bone in her body," Christie said. "The reason she did it is just as bad, if not worse, and should make everybody concerned about her candidacy. She did it because she's unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth."

Even one of Haley's rivals from the right in the presidential primary, Vivek Ramaswamy, posted on social media that "the shocking part isn't that Nikki failed to mention slavery." 

"It's that she failed to mention the 10th Amendment," Ramaswamy's post said. "When you try to be everything to everyone, you're nothing to anyone."

Haley spent time on Thursday morning trying to clarify her answer. 

"Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that, that's unquestioned. always the case, we know the Civil War was about slavery. But it was also more than that," Haley said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. "It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government." 

Anxiety within the part of the GOP ready to move on from Trump has also led to Christie facing calls to drop out in hopes of helping Haley. In 2016, Trump's GOP challengers failed to consolidate behind a single alternative candidate in time to deny him the nomination, and there is fear that the same fate could play out again. 

As Haley faced quick pushback this week, the challenge of consolidating more Trump critics behind her came into sharper focus. 

"The calls for Christie to drop out really are predicated on the idea that there's a lane for Nikki Haley, and that Nikki Haley could win, not only in New Hampshire, but then could go on to win the primary," said Lucy Caldwell, who was the campaign manager for former congressman Joe Walsh's longshot 2020 GOP presidential primary challenge to Trump. 

Haley's comment in Berlin, Caldwell said, helps "show that maybe there is a continued role for someone like Chris Christie to keep the flame alive for pro-democracy, non-lying, non-pandering to extremist, Republicans." 

Nidia Cavazos, Jacob Rosen and Annie Bryson contributed to this report. 

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