MANCHESTER, N.H. – Nikki Haley was disappointed, but not surprised when Don Lemon questioned whether she was in her “prime” as a woman.
“It was surprising how ridiculous it was,” Haley told USA TODAY during an interview in New Hampshire, a key early voting state that could prove pivotal in the 2024 Republican primary race.
The former CNN host’s comments, which came a day after she formally announced her presidential campaign, were perhaps a boon to Haley’s newly launched campaign back in February. The remarks reignited a discussion across the country about the reality for women politicians compared to their male counterparts.
But it also revealed a potential path for Haley’s campaign, which risks getting drowned out by a crowded presidential field, with frontrunners former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sucking up much of the oxygen.
The former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is currently the only woman in the GOP field and she could have unique access to a highly coveted voting bloc that could make or break elections: suburban women.
Stay in the conversation on politics: Sign up for the OnPolitics newsletter
Haley on suburban women: ‘I know the challenges they face’
The two largely perceived frontrunners to take the GOP nomination, Trump and DeSantis, both have their own weaknesses with suburban women.
Trump’s vulnerability was on full display at his CNN town hall in New Hampshire in April, where he mocked and derided writer E. Jean Carroll as a “whack-job” after he was found liable by a jury to have sexually abused and defamed her.
DeSantis, while still considered a frontrunner in the race, has slightly fallen from grace over concerns about his personality and his apparent refusal to publicly discuss a 6-week abortion ban he signed in Florida. DeSantis headlined the annual gala of a Florida anti-abortion group in May but barely mentioned the ban.
Haley thinks she is in a unique position as the only woman in the GOP field to be able to capture those key voters.
“I know the challenges they face. I know whether they’re taking care of elderly parents because I’m doing that. I know about their spouses in the military. I’m a military wife. I know about that,” Haley told USA TODAY. “I know about raising children and the concerns you have.”
“Women are used to balancing, but at the same time, they focus on everything from national security, to fiscal policy, to their kid’s education, to safety to the open borders,” Haley added.
Anyone can figure out what suburban women want and care about in a candidate – but Haley said she is uniquely equipped to communicate with them and reach out.
“I know not only what they care about, but I also know how to communicate that to them because I can relate to what they’re feeling,” she said.
Related: GOP presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley, Tim Scott are on good terms. But for how long?
Haley commits to signing national abortion ban in New Hampshire
Haley has walked a tightrope on talking through a political issue that has been touchy for Republicans but incredibly important with women and swing voters: abortion. Haley on Wednesday committed to signing a federal abortion ban if it was brought to her desk as president, but noted she believes the prospect of a national ban getting through Congress is unlikely.
“I’m unapologetically pro-life,” she said.
Speaking at Saint Anselm College and the New England Council’s “Politics and Eggs” event, a rite of passage for any presidential candidate passing through the Granite State, an attendee asked Haley how she can reconcile her anti-abortion stance with New Hampshire, a state the attendee described as “overwhelmingly pro-choice.”
Haley told her she was sticking by her position, but added, “It’s incredibly personal and I’m going to treat it with the respect it deserves.”
In her interview with USA TODAY, she echoed her previous speech on abortion delivered at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s headquarters, where she called for stronger family services and easier access to contraception for women.
“We need to have better support services for women. The part of having access to contraception is making sure that you’re giving them as much control over the situation as they can,” Haley said.
New Hampshire GOP voter: Haley ‘understands what mothers go through’
It is unclear so far how that message will fly with voters who support abortion rights, but among the women in the GOP primary electorate who are anti-abortion, those voters say they want more talk from candidates at supporting families beyond just abortion restrictions.
“One thing that’s great about Nikki is that she understands what mothers go through and all of that internal dialogue and stress of being pregnant and having a family and trying to care for your family,” said Danielle Evansic, a 48-year-old voter from Bedford.
Evansic said she has yet to decide on any candidate in the GOP primary, but said she has been impressed by Haley and added that she was not too familiar with her until after Lemon’s “prime” comment put her in the national spotlight.
“I thought it was amazingly rude of him to say that a woman is not in her prime,” added Evansic. “She’s worked her way up to where she is.”
Kathy Powell, 75, also from Bedford, said she thinks the first woman president being a Republican is an “excellent idea.”
“I think it’s fantastic,” Powell, who is undecided, said of Haley’s status as possibly the only woman in the field. “She’s very capable. I have no doubt she could do the job.”
As 2024 GOP competition intensifies, Haley’s support in N.H. is falling
Since announcing her campaign, Haley has not shied away from repeatedly mentioning her underdog status in her stumps. Her underdog candidacy, she tells voters at her town halls, only motivates her harder on the campaign trail.
Haley has made frequent stops in New Hampshire, a state that some see as the pinnacle of retail politics. She has hosted multiple town halls and rubbed shoulders with Granite State voters shopping for GOP candidates. But it is unclear whether it is enough, especially now with the competition getting more intense.
In January, while Haley was teasing her presidential campaign, she had 8% support among likely GOP voters in New Hampshire − a sign that there could be room for her in the primary in a poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3%.
Who’s officially running for president?: Get to know the candidates for 2024
But since then, Haley’s polling numbers have fallen as more candidates enter the field. In another poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire in April, Haley had 3% support. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3%.
“She’s been coming here for an awful long time,” Jason Osborne, New Hampshire state House Republican leader told USA TODAY. “It just doesn’t seem to be happening.”
Osborne, who is backing DeSantis, noted he could not dismiss Haley’s campaign, given how much time she has spent up in New Hampshire. What he could dismiss was her poor polling performance. Leading up to primary day, “anything could happen” Osborne said, adding that his thoughts were “just one guy’s opinion.”
Haley dismisses polling performance in New Hampshire
When asked about her largely unmoved polling performance in New Hampshire, Haley said she is absolutely unconcerned with the horserace. She pointed to former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s lead in Iowa, where he led the GOP field in the summer of 2015 but dropped out before the state’s caucuses after his support drastically fell.
“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. I’m not concerned with where things are now. I’m concerned about touching as many voters as we can and watching that go,” Haley said. “It’s slow and steady wins the race.”
By the end of Wednesday, Haley’s campaign says she will have hosted 28 grassroots events in New Hampshire and 22 events in Iowa. For now, her pace does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
‘A toxic issue’: How voters are forcing GOP contenders to talk about abortion ahead of 2024
Doug Bianchi, a 76-year-old Navy veteran from Milford, lamented to Haley that the U.S. has yet to see a woman in the presidency.
“The bad thing about it is that women didn’t even get the right to vote until the 20s and they’re still being repressed in not only the work and homes, everything. And it’s time for the United States to put a good dependable woman in the (presidency),” Bianchi told Haley at a town hall Wednesday.
“I want to take you on the road with me,” Haley said, joking with her staff to get Bianchi a Nikki Haley jacket.
After the town hall, Haley embraced Bianchi, who recently suffered from a stroke and wished him well.
Bianchi said he sees something different in Haley that he has not seen in other presidential candidates, who he has followed since former President Harry Truman.
“She’s finally getting to be progressive instead of regressive like all the men are. Not just Republicans but the Democrats too. They’re all in an old-boy network,” Bianchi said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Exclusive: Nikki Haley talks ‘prime’ and the 2024 GOP path to victory