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Nikki Haley surges after Koch endorsement, but can she catch Donald Trump?

DERRY, N.H. – Hours after securing a coveted endorsement from the wealthy and powerful Koch political network, 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley addressed a standing-room-only crowd of early primary voters Tuesday night with one bold question.

“How many of you are here to hear me for the first time?” the former South Carolina governor asked, surveying the more than 300 people packed into the Derry Opera House on the blistering cold New England night.

Almost half threw their hands in the air, including Christy Carlson, 54, and her friend Marlo Devir, 52.

The two longtime New Hampshire Republicans had never once attended any of the hundreds of presidential campaign rallies that swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state every four years.

They chose Haley’s town hall on a “whim” after hearing murmurs that the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nation’s star was on the rise.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Devir, who still hasn’t decided who she’ll vote for in the January primary. “I’ve seen her on TV, but to see her in person was something different for sure.”

A star on the rise

The outpouring of curious new faces at Haley’s Derry event was just the latest sign of the candidate’s surging momentum in the GOP primary.

A day earlier, Haley had filled a college auditorium in her home state of South Carolina with over 2,500 people, turning what was supposed to be a town hall into the biggest rally of her campaign.

And before she took the stage on Tuesday, the trained accountant notched another win: an endorsement from the conservative grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity Action, co-founded by billionaire Charles Koch.

Like many voters USA TODAY spoke with inside the old Opera house, Carlson and Devir hadn’t heard about the Koch endorsement. Even if they had, that alone wouldn’t have swayed their opinions about Haley, the pair said.

But they saw it as part of a series of events raising Haley's profile with just eight weeks to go until New Hampshire voters cast their primary ballots.

“You start looking at patterns of people that are starting to endorse, and that draws your attention. It makes you aware,” Carlson, a venture capitalist, said.

“That’s essentially the momentum Haley is getting.”

The Trump equation

Bob Davis was one of few voters in the crowd who had heard about the Koch endorsement. The announcement gave Davis “confidence that Nikki could possibly carry” the primary and potentially beat Trump, he told USA TODAY.

A retired health care administrator, Davis was among a large contingent of town hall attendees who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. But this election cycle, Davis said, the former president has given “1000 reasons every day” to choose a different candidate.

And while the 78-year-old still is deciding who to support, if “pressed with hot coals,” he said he’d circle Haley’s name because other challengers, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy “don’t have as much horsepower” in terms of intelligence and the ability to get things done.

Haley, and big-money backers like AFP Action, have used similar arguments, often describing the 51-year-old as a new generational leader, to distinguish her from Trump and the crowded field of GOP contenders

On Tuesday, as Haley more comfortably entered the No. 2 spot in the 2024 New Hampshire race, she appeared to ramp up those calls and directly target Trump more than ever before.

Sticking to her classic stump speech, Haley at first told the new throngs at the Opera House that she believed “President Trump was the right person at the right time.”

“But the truth is,” she added, “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him everywhere he goes. And with a country as divided like we are, in a world with threats pointed at America, we can’t afford any of that chaos.”

Despite Haley’s rising momentum, her path to victory in New Hampshire remains narrow. Trump is garnering over 60% of the vote in most polls, compared with Haley's roughly 10%, and with less than 50 days until the first votes are cast, time is running out.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haley sprints to catch Trump after wealthy Koch network endorsement