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Trump’s New Hampshire victory brings Biden rematch into focus

MANCHESTER. N.H. — New Hampshire voters have often chosen to play the role of spoilers, upending the script of a presidential nominating contest by embarrassing the front-runner. On Tuesday, that was not to be. Donald Trump easily dispatched Nikki Haley, a victory likely to shift the focus of 2024 politics to his expected November faceoff against President Biden.

The victory on Tuesday made Trump the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary — and to win both with a majority of the vote. In doing so, Trump has maintained a pace that would allow him to effectively wrap up the Republican nomination faster than any previous non-incumbent.

In victory, however, Trump was anything but gracious. On stage, he was angry — angry that Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina, had delivered her post-election remarks before him and that they had the air of a victory speech, angry that she vowed to keep her campaign going against the odds. Trump was petulant and dismissive, barely able to enjoy the clear victory he had posted. The more Haley carries the fight forward, the more likely it is to irritate him.

Both the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign are eager to see the general election come into sharper focus. For Trump, shedding his rivals allows him to concentrate on the battle ahead rather than continuing to spend significant time and money on what appears to be a foregone conclusion.

For Biden, the sooner he can focus voters on the possibility of Trump returning to the White House, the more his team thinks voters will recoil. Trump’s performance on Tuesday night was exactly what they hope will register increasingly with voters.

A general election between Biden and Trump will be grinding. Most Americans wish their choice would be anything but a 2020 rematch. The longest general election in history is not likely to be remembered for its uplifting spirit. But few elections have come with stakes and significance as great as what lies ahead.

The general election will be unusual in another important respect. There will be much more focus, pro and con, on Trump than on Biden. It is in Trump’s nature to make himself the center of attention and in Biden’s interest to let him. Biden has not been a forceful presence, seen by many of his detractors as too old and weak to seek a second term. In 2020, because of the pandemic, he was able to stay out of the limelight and let Trump damage himself. Will that be the same dynamic this time?

The Republican race has consolidated remarkably quickly. Even before the first primary on Tuesday, the once-large GOP field had been reduced to just two candidates, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, once seen as Trump’s strongest challenger, unexpectedly suspended his campaign on Sunday afternoon.

Polls show that many voters see Trump as more capable at handling the economy and stronger to deal with the surge of illegal immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Biden’s team wants Americans to recall other aspects of Trump’s presidency and post-presidency, from his lies about a stolen election in 2020 to his erratic behavior to his grievance-laden rhetoric and appeals.

As strong as Trump has been in the nomination contest, the general election balance sheet is far less positive. His assets begin with his strong and loyal base. His supporters have shown themselves to be extremely enthusiastic about him. And while he badly lost the popular vote in 2020, the shift of about 44,000 votes in battleground states could have changed the outcome in the electoral college.

That points toward a general election battle waged in the trenches of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and, possibly, North Carolina. It also points to another potentially close contest for an electoral college majority.

Trump’s liabilities are significant, starting with the four criminal indictments and 91 felony counts s in state and federal courts. The timing of those trials remains fluid, leaving open the question of whether any jury will render a verdict before the election. Republicans are taking a gamble by putting their hopes of winning back the White House — not to mention holding their slim House majority and winning control of the Senate — in the hands of Trump. They seem oblivious to this.

Biden, too, is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. His overall approval ratings are extremely low. He has failed to persuade voters to give him credit for those parts of the economy that look strong. He is dogged by complaints about high gasoline and grocery prices and his age at 81 is a cause for concern even among voters who say they will be with him.

His greatest asset is that his likely opponent does more to motivate the Democratic base and some anti-Trump independents that Biden himself does. And if Biden will be on defense on the issue of immigration, unless a deal is cut soon in Congress, he and the Democrats will be on offense on the issue of abortion.

Democrats will seek to make abortion a central part of the choice in the fall. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the summer of 2022, thanks to the three conservative justices Trump nominated, Republicans have suffered at the polls when the issue has been the centerpiece of campaigns, and antiabortion measures have failed at the polls.

Trump’s victory in New Hampshire was built on the strength of his margin among registered Republicans in the state, another reminder of his success over the past eight years in consolidating a reshaped party. Preliminary network exit poll findings showed that, among registered Republicans, his margin over Haley was almost 50 percentage points.

That is a big reason, as he has marched toward the nomination, that more and more Republican elected officials have fallen in line behind him. They have bowed to the former president, despite whatever private doubts they may harbor about his fitness for the presidency, because they fear his followers.

But Haley’s support among New Hampshire’s independent voters points to a potential problem for Trump in a general election. On Tuesday, those who have registered to vote as undeclared supported Haley by a margin of 65 percent to 34 percent, according to the preliminary network exit poll findings. She also won a majority of voters with college degrees, but Trump won an even bigger majority among those without college degrees.

Many of those among the pool of undeclared voters in New Hampshire once called themselves Republicans. Their antipathy toward the former president will be a problem for Trump in the fall.

Haley spoke to her supporters in Concord, N.H., soon after the polls closed, declaring that the Republican race is far from over and indicating that she is eager to join the next battle, in her home state. But the South Carolina electorate is far more conservative than New Hampshire’s and, therefore, far less friendly to her.

That sets her up for potential embarrassment at the hands of voters who put her in the governor’s mansion unless she can shake up the race and break through with Republican voters. Increasingly, she will be under pressure to quit the race.

DeSantis faced the same pressure after Iowa, vowed to keep going into South Carolina and beyond — and then quit before the balloting began in New Hampshire.

With Biden not on the ballot here and the Democratic race drawing little interest, Haley’s strategy was to attract as many undeclared voters, many of whom are hostile toward Trump, as possible to back her candidacy.

For part of the past week, the campaign in New Hampshire was a pale imitation of past contests, with Haley starting her post-Iowa activity slowly, DeSantis often absent and Trump following his pattern of limited rallies and little direct voter contact.

After her slow start, Haley, spurred by the energy of Gov. Chris Sununu, her most prominent supporter, kick-started her campaign late last week and maintained a decidedly accelerated pace until Tuesday. On both Sunday night and Monday night, she drew large and enthusiastic audiences in Exeter and Salem in a sign of what appeared to be gathering momentum behind her.

The polls, however, kept telling another story, that of a front-runner who continued to maintain a double-digit lead. Haley’s hope was to cut that to single digits and at least get some bragging rights coming out of New Hampshire. She didn’t quite make it, and as she considers her options in the weeks ahead of South Carolina’s primary, Trump and Biden will be plotting how to defeat each other.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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