Nikki Haley on Saturday blasted Donald J. Trump’s dishonesty and his relationships with “dictators,” questioned his mental acuity and dismissed his mounting stack of endorsements, sharpening her attacks on him as she headed into the final two days of New Hampshire campaigning.
Delivering her most forceful case yet for the Republican presidential nomination, Ms. Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, embraced her underdog status this weekend as independent, anti-Trump voters urged her on.
But with the first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday, Ms. Haley has enormous ground to make up and very little time to do it. Mr. Trump was filling arenas and event centers in Concord and Manchester, N.H., on Friday and Saturday, speaking to adoring throngs as Republican elected officials fell in line. His event Saturday night in Manchester drew a few thousand fans. Ms. Haley, meanwhile, was visiting retail stores and restaurants. Her largest event, in Nashua, N.H., drew around 500.
Suffolk University’s daily tracking poll of New Hampshire voters on Saturday had Mr. Trump leading Ms. Haley by double digits, 53 percent to 36 percent, with his margin having crept up a percentage point each of the previous two days.
“When you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do this — we can’t,” Ms. Haley said in Keene, N.H., criticizing Mr. Trump for confusing her with Nancy Pelosi at his Friday night rally. “So, that’s the choice. Do you want to win in November or not? Do you want to be scared in November or not? Do you want your kids to be proud in November or not?”
Later, in a news conference with reporters in Peterborough, N.H., Ms. Haley questioned whether Mr. Trump would be “on it” enough to lead the nation. “My parents are up in age, and I love them dearly,” she told reporters. “But when you see them hit a certain age, there is a decline. That’s a fact — ask any doctor, there is a decline.”
Still, as she barnstormed through New Hampshire on her 52nd birthday on Saturday, attack lines that had been at the end of her standard stump speech moved more toward the front. Even the sound of her voice grew more urgent. And she appeared to feed off the energy of her audiences.
“You can give me your gifts on Tuesday, at a polling place near you,” she told supporters in Rindge, N.H., after they sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
Ms. Haley and Mr. Trump are effectively in a two-person race for New Hampshire. The former president hopes to bury his competition on Tuesday, heading into the Nevada and U.S. Virgin Islands caucuses on Feb. 8 and then the South Carolina primary on Feb. 24. Ms. Haley is hoping for an upset win in New Hampshire to slingshot her back to her home state, where another strong showing could turn the expected Trump coronation into a protracted fight for the nomination.
Mr. Trump remains the favorite. Even amid the enthusiasm at Ms. Haley’s events in recent days, some of her ardent supporters confessed that they, too, had a sinking feeling about Tuesday.
“I have a feeling Trump may win again,” said Linda Merullo, a retiree and independent voter in Dover, N.H., who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. “How very bizarre. Boy, are we messed up as a country.”
New Hampshire voters flocking to Ms. Haley’s events encouraged her to take on Mr. Trump and free the country from what they described as a dreadful choice in November — between the 77-year-old Mr. Trump and the 81-year-old President Biden.
“We need some young blood,” said Terry Cutter, a Republican from Hillsborough, N.H., who supported Mr. Trump in both 2016 and 2020 but plans to vote for Ms. Haley in the primary.
“Young blood, and a woman to get rid of some of this testosterone,” added his wife, Shelley Cutter, a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton and Mr. Biden but is now backing Ms. Haley. “I don’t think anyone over 65 should be running for president. You don’t need a bunch of old, white men — we just need to get rid of them all.”
For months now, Ms. Haley has treated Mr. Trump gingerly, with gentle jabs mingled with respectful praise. A three-minute campaign video released this weekend features Cindy Warmbier, the mother of a college student who died at the hands of North Korea’s autocratic regime, praising Ms. Haley’s outreach as the ambassador to the United Nations. But not once does the ad mention that her son, Otto Warmbier, died while Mr. Trump was president, or that Mr. Trump went on to lavish effusive praise for, and shake the hand of, Kim Jong Un, the dictator responsible for Mr. Warmbier’s death.
New Hampshire, where around 40 percent of voters are independent, has long respected insurgent candidates willing to take on the favorite. In 2000, Senator John McCain of Arizona beat that year’s establishment titan, George W. Bush. Eight years later, Barack Obama swept into the state with a confidence buoyed by his victory in the Iowa caucuses, only to lose to Hillary Clinton in a contest that set off an epic fight for the Democratic nomination.
Ms. Haley, in these final days, seemed to be the last to realize a pugilistic streak is what independent-minded New Hampshire voters were craving.
Dave and Kathy Kelley of Hudson, N.H., said they had come to hear Ms. Haley speak in Nashua on Saturday evening, eager for her to adopt the tone that Chris Christie, the anti-Trump former governor of New Jersey, had toward Mr. Trump before he left the race.
“She needs to take him to task for other comments that he’s made about other people, threatening comments, and continuing the big lie for Jan. 6,” said Ms. Kelley, referring to the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Dave Kelley, 71, added, “It still feels like she’s hedging her bets.”
Laura Dowling, 60, a nurse from Nashua, revealed the same misgivings as she dug into a piece of the birthday cake presented to Ms. Haley at the Peddler’s Daughter, a lively Irish pub in Ms. Dowling’s hometown. “I don’t like nastiness in the primaries,” she said, “but I think she should be defending herself a little more.”
Ms. Haley’s stops have been big and small: a cramped, iconic store in Hooksett; a retro diner in Amherst; a tiny country store selling jars of maple syrup in Newfields; hotel ballrooms in Manchester and Nashua that brought in hundreds of well-wishers. Unlike Mr. Trump and his outsize rallies, Ms. Haley has been doing the retail work that New Hampshirites have come to expect — shaking hands, holding babies and answering personal questions one on one (though she has not held the town hall-style events that state voters also expect).
At a history and culture center in Keene, she bent down to tie an older supporter’s shoe and took pictures with another voter and her poodle mix. At the Peddler’s Daughter, Ms. Haley poured pints of Guinness from behind the bar and toasted with Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire as she was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” for a third time on Saturday. She took selfies with patrons, signed Haley posters and called a fan’s mother to wish her well.
She also made her final pitch to voters.
“The world is on fire,” she said to a couple of independent voters who told her they were scared of a Trump re-election and appreciated her message that “chaos” followed wherever he went. “We can’t have that again,” she said.
Ahead of Iowa, Ms. Haley had been looking to winnow the field. In New Hampshire, she told reporters on Friday, she was seeking to draw contrasts between herself and Mr. Trump. She has long treaded a careful line with the former president, on the stump and in her books. She rarely criticized him, even as he racked up criminal cases, faced accusations of sexual misconduct and warmed his rhetoric toward Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader.
In her final days on the trail, she has not entirely abandoned that approach, as she continued to call for generational change and describe Mr. Trump as a force of chaos. But on Saturday, she denounced his lies on her record and his ties to authoritarian leaders, accusing him of having a “bromance with Putin,” praising President Xi Jinping “a dozen times after China gave us Covid” and exchanging “love letters” with Mr. Kim.
“When you are talking about contrasts in foreign policy, you don’t praise dictators and thugs who want to kill us,” she said in Nashua, recounting Otto Warmbier’s story. “It’s not good for us.”
She said she had been “disappointed” that Senator Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian whom she appointed to the Senate in 2017, had endorsed Mr. Trump. She argued that she got “no love” from South Carolina lawmakers because she ran as an anti-establishment Tea Party conservative and pushed for reforms. Asked about Henry McMaster, her lieutenant governor who is now the governor of South Carolina and who campaigned on Saturday with Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, she shot back: “I’m sorry, is that the person I ran against for governor and beat? Just check it.”
Her more direct approach comes as her events have been packed wall to wall with supporters from near and far. A campaign staff member said the fire marshal showed up at one town hall in Keene, fretting over the overstuffed venue. At another event at a college in Rindge, many onlookers said they had come from Massachusetts, just to the south, or New York, to get a glimpse of the person they said they hoped would be the first female president.
Such voters expressed a desperate desire for someone to beat Mr. Trump. Ms. Haley is a candidate, they said, whom they can vote for, not against.
Thalia Floras, of Nashua, switched her “lifetime” party affiliation as a Democrat so that she could vote for Ms. Haley in the primary. But she worried that her candidate’s new tone was too timid and too late.
“I wish she had started doing that a little while back,” Ms. Floras, 61, said. “She does it with a little bit of humor, and she does it with grace.”