With only about 48 hours left to campaign in the New Hampshire primary, Nikki Haley finally got the two-person race she wanted.
It might not live up to her expectations.
For months, it has been an article of faith among Ms. Haley’s supporters and a coalition of anti-Trump Republicans that the only way to defeat Donald J. Trump was to winnow the field to a one-on-one contest and consolidate support among his opponents.
That wishcasting became reality on Sunday afternoon, when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida ended his White House bid.
And yet, as the race reached the final day, there was little sign that Mr. DeSantis’s departure would transform Ms. Haley’s chances of winning.
Ms. Haley quickly learned that the role of last woman standing against Mr. Trump meant serving as the last target for a party racing to line up behind the former president.
Two former rivals in the race — Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Mr. DeSantis — both endorsed the former president. The head of the party’s Senate campaign arm proclaimed Mr. Trump to be the “presumptive nominee.” And Mr. Trump’s campaign strategists vowed that she would be “absolutely embarrassed and demolished” in her home state of South Carolina, the next big prize on the calendar.
Campaigning across New Hampshire on Sunday, Ms. Haley and her supporters celebrated the DeSantis campaign’s demise.
“Can you hear that sound?” she asked more than 1,000 gathered in a high school gymnasium in Exeter, N.H., her best-attended event in the state. “That’s the sound of a two-person race.”
Thirty-five miles north, in Rochester, N.H., Mr. Trump told his crowd to expect a victory so decisive it would effectively end the primary. “That should wrap it up,” he said.
Ms. Haley’s supporters in the state said they were feeling that pressure. Some worried aloud that she had pulled punches with Mr. Trump for so long that her aggressiveness in the primary’s final weekend would be inadequate to persuade flinty New Hampshire voters that she had enough fight in her to win against the brawling former president.
One Republican activist backing Ms. Haley said he kept his lawn sign in his garage because Mr. Trump’s victory felt inevitable. Another Haley backer, Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, described his support for the former governor as unenthusiastic. He said he could not bring himself to defend Ms. Haley on social media or lean on friends and family to vote for her.
“Too little, too late,” Mr. Cullen said about Ms. Haley’s prospects. “She had to inspire and engage unaffiliated voters, and I just haven’t seen her doing what she needs to do to reach that audience and turn them out in the numbers that she needs.”
Most polls during the past week showed Mr. Trump up by a dozen points or more. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 Boston daily tracking poll of New Hampshire voters showed Mr. Trump steadily adding to his lead over Ms. Haley, with a margin of 53 percent to 36 percent on Saturday.
Ms. Haley’s performance on Tuesday is likely to determine the future of her campaign — and possibly her political career. Anything short of a victory or narrow defeat would put pressure on her to drop out rather than face three weeks of punishing ads from the Trump campaign in her home state, where she is already behind.
Her best shot at survival is high turnout from New Hampshire’s independent voters, who make up 40 percent of the state’s electorate, while Republicans account for about 30 percent.
The New Hampshire secretary of state has been predicting record high turnout on Tuesday, a scenario that both campaigns were claiming would bolster their chances of success.
Ms. Haley’s team believes a turnout surge would mean more participation from independent and moderate voters who are more likely to support her. They looked to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign as a model. Mr. McCain won the state’s primary by dominating independent voters and battling to a draw among Republicans, according to exit polls.
Ms. Haley, however, appears to be trailing by a large margin among Republicans, according to public polls. In the tracking poll, Ms. Haley led independents, 49 percent to 41, but was nearly 20 points behind Mr. Trump overall largely owing to his wide margin from Republicans, 65 percent to 25 percent.
Ms. Haley’s donors and allies argued Mr. DeSantis’s departure could reel in more donations and help her sharpen the contrast between herself and the former president. Both Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis struggled to find ways to criticize Mr. Trump without turning off Republicans who may be open to alternatives, but are still fond of him.
But some longtime political operatives in the state suggested there might not be enough anti-Trump Republicans and moderate independents to make the numbers work.
“Haley has consolidated the non-Trump vote, but overtaking him is the Rubik’s Cube no one has been able to figure out yet,” said Matt Mowers, a former Republican House candidate from New Hampshire who was endorsed by both Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley.
As she delivered her stump speech on Saturday with new urgency, Ms. Haley’s attacks on Mr. Trump were sometimes softened by including Mr. Biden in the critique.
“What are Joe Biden and Donald Trump both talking about?” Ms. Haley asked, at her rally in Exeter. “The investigations that they are in, the distractions they have, the people they’re mad at, their hurt feelings, and they have not shown us one ounce of vision for the future — not one.”
Jane Freeman, 55, a retired flight attendant and undeclared voter in Exeter, scrunched her forehead and let out a sigh when asked about Mr. DeSantis’s endorsement of Mr. Trump.
“Trump is a tricky thing,” said Ms. Freeman, who voted for the former president in 2016 and in 2020 but now supports Ms. Haley. “I really wish he would have waited,” she said of Mr. DeSantis. Still, she said Ms. Haley had the right momentum and was continuing to win voters. “I am nervous, but truly, truly hopeful,” she said.
Anjali Huynh and Michael Gold contributed reporting.