EPPING, N.H. — After Nikki Haley recently fielded questions from reporters at a seafood restaurant here, she stopped to greet a diner who wanted to talk about the Republican candidate’s call for “consensus” on abortion at the federal level.
“There is no consensus on that; that’s the problem,” the woman told Haley.
“No, but that’s why we’ve got to quit demonizing that issue,” Haley then said, identifying areas she said are suitable for compromise such as access to contraception, banning late-term abortions, and ensuring that women who have abortions do not face jail time or the death penalty.
The woman again pushed back, asking about what is happening in Texas — where a federal appeals court recently ruled that Texas hospitals and doctors are not obligated to perform abortions — and her concern that doctors could go to jail for performing the procedure.
“We can’t do anything without 60 Senate votes,” Haley said, referring to the support needed to overcome any filibuster of abortion legislation. “We’re going to have to have a compromise to make anything happen,” she added before turning and exiting the restaurant.
In her long-shot campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, which is meeting a critical juncture here Tuesday in the first-in-the-nation primary, Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, has stuck carefully to a position of compromise and few specifics when it comes to one of the country’s most polarizing issues.
Her vague stances have drawn mixed reviews and sometimes conflicting interpretations from voters and activists in the state. Some, including abortion rights advocates, have lauded and embraced her views. Others have challenged them or voiced confusion about where she stands.
Some here said they see her as a “pro-choice” candidate, others as one who is “pro-life.” Many agree that she seems more reasonable and less extreme than her rivals. Haley allies hope her posture will help her against-the-odds bid in a state where many Republicans favor abortion rights.
Democrats have found success in recent elections running as protectors of abortion rights and pointing to Republicans’ efforts to restrict access to the procedure. This week, which marked the 51st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling, they pointed to Donald Trump’s nominations of Supreme Court justices who helped overturn the decision.
In a Republican Party that has struggled to navigate the politics of abortion since Roe — which had established the constitutional right to an abortion — was struck down in 2022, Haley is offering what some Republicans see as a blueprint for talking about the issue in the future. By avoiding specifics and instead highlighting her personal life experiences and repeatedly urging “consensus,” Haley has managed to appeal to voters on both sides of the issue.
Rachel Rowley, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, said she leans Democratic and supports abortion rights. She said she thinks Haley is personally antiabortion but favors abortion rights for others.
“She has great ideas, especially about abortion. That was a big one for me,” Rowley, 20, said while waiting for Haley to speak at a town hall in Rye, N.H., earlier this month. “She’s really focusing on areas that both political parties can knuckle down on and fix to make for a better America, and I think that’s such a different forward movement than any other politicians that we’ve seen in the past.”
Haley is in fact staunchly antiabortion. “I’m unapologetically pro-life,” she said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” adding, “I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice.” She reiterated that she would support a federal restriction on abortion but thinks reaching agreement on one would be nearly impossible.
“I’ve said I’m fine with a federal law. But the thing is, in order to get a federal law, you have to have a majority of the House, 60 senators and a signature of the president,” she said in the interview, adding, “No Republican president can ban abortions, any more than a Democrat president can ban any state law. What we can do is let’s find consensus.”
Maggie Keenan, a classmate of Rowley’s and a self-described independent who is more aligned with Democratic views, said at a Haley event that, while she is very against restrictions on abortion, she thinks Haley is willing to negotiate and does not worry about Haley imposing federal restrictions.
“She said she wants it to be a states’ rights issue. And obviously I would want it more of to be pro-choice at a federal level. But I like that … she’s not going to make it outlawed on a federal level,” said Keenan, 21. “That’s better than, like, getting rid of it.”
On the campaign trail here in New Hampshire, abortion is not part of Haley’s stump speech — she speaks about it only when asked by attendees. No abortion-related ads have aired in the New Hampshire primary, according to AdImpact.
While Haley continues to emphasize that there is a federal role to be played in abortion law, she has avoided many of the details at the center of contentious disagreements on abortion, including the specific number of weeks of pregnancy at which she would want to see abortion banned. Instead, she has focused on how her life and career informed her thinking and on the need to find common ground.
She’s invoked personal experiences as a mother who struggled to have children, as the wife of an adoptee and as a friend of a woman who was raped. She has spoken in broad terms about trying to “save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible.”
Some Democratic critics say that rhetoric masks a staunchly antiabortion record. As governor of South Carolina, Haley signed a bill in 2016 banning most abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill did not provide exceptions for rape or incest but did allow an exception to protect the life of the mother.
In the presidential race, some of Haley’s campaign literature promotes her as “Pro Life. Pro Gun. Pro Police.”
In April, she delivered a major policy speech on abortion at the headquarters of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. And in the days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, her campaign released an ad starring Marlys Popma, the former president of Iowa Right to Life who endorsed Haley in November.
But in interviews, many Democratic and independent voters at Haley’s events said they were willing to look past any concerns they have about Haley’s record or the possibility of a GOP president passing a federal ban — in large part because of the fact that Haley has spoken in more personal and cooperative terms than other Republicans.
That concerns some Democratic strategists, who fear that if she does beat the odds and become the GOP nominee, it would be more difficult to run on an issue they want to make central to their pitch.
Some antiabortion voters also cite Haley’s position on abortion as their reason for backing her. Marguerite Cail, a Republican who attended a Haley meet-and-greet in Londonderry, N.H., credited Haley’s stance on abortion as the reason she supports her — interpreting her position differently than voters like Rowley and Keenan.
“Coming from a very strong pro-life stance, I feel the same way she does,” said Cail, 50. “I think she’s reasonable about it. … It’s a sad thing if it happens, but it’s not that you want to put people in jail for doing it; it’s just something that you’d like to avoid.”
But others are more skeptical. Jason Hennessey, president of New Hampshire Right to Life, said he wasn’t sure where Haley stands on abortion. He declined to say which candidate he planned to vote for Tuesday.
“When I look at the records, I see Trump with his Supreme Court justices … moving the ball forward and not using our tax dollars to support the abortion industry,” said Hennessey, speaking for himself and not his organization. He added, “I guess I don’t know a lot about what Nikki has done.”
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.