By James Oliphant and Nathan Layne
PETERBOROUGH/MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) -Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley accused Republican rival Donald Trump of being "obsessed" with dictators and too old to lead on Saturday in a final stretch of campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday's presidential nominating contest.
The former U.S. president ramped up his verbal attacks and targeted Haley's Indian heritage as the former ambassador to the United Nations sought to blunt Trump's momentum following his victory last Monday in the Iowa caucuses.
New Hampshire boasts a more moderate brand of Republicanism with a semi-open primary that can attract more centrist voters, who may be turned off by Trump's four criminal cases, authoritarian language and efforts to overturn his 2020 re-election loss.
Haley spoke to reporters following an event in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and emphasized Trump’s relationships with strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Her campaign released a TV ad that will run in New Hampshire featuring the mother of Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 after being held in North Korean custody. Haley accused Trump of writing “love letters” to Kim after Warmbier was recovered. “He is obsessed with these dictators,” she said.
Haley's increasingly vocal criticism of Trump is a shift for a candidate who has shied away from sharp attacks on her former boss even as she has sought to sideline him, so far unsuccessfully, in the Republican race.
One of two remaining candidates challenging Trump for the Republican nomination, Haley needs a strong showing after placing third narrowly behind Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as Trump handily won in Iowa, the first stop in the state-by-state battle to determine the party's choice to face President Joe Biden, a Democrat who is running for re-election.
The second Republican contest could help her build support as a viable alternative to Trump - or close her already-narrow path to the nomination even before reaching the contest in her home state of South Carolina next month.
Trump also returned to New Hampshire for evening rallies throughout the weekend.
All three candidates are looking ahead to South Carolina. Haley's campaign will launch a $4 million advertising campaign in her home state, campaign manager Betsy Ankney told a Bloomberg News media roundtable on Saturday.
The former president, fresh after receiving an endorsement from Senator Tim Scott, a former presidential candidate from South Carolina, will be joined at his rally on Saturday evening by the state's Governor Henry McMaster and other high-ranking officials, according to a campaign official.
South Carolina's lieutenant governor, attorney general and treasurer, as well as three members of Congress from the state are also expected to join the rally, the official said.
DeSantis, who had largely written off New Hampshire, held a brief last-minute stop on Friday before three events Saturday in South Carolina.
Haley sharpened some barbs against Trump during her final campaign swing through New Hampshire even as she paired them with attacks on Biden and told CNN she would pardon Trump if he is convicted on criminal charges.
On Friday, however, she ruled out serving as his vice presidential running mate as he continued to slam her, including again targeting her given first name on his social media platform. Trump has also amplified false posts questioning her birthright U.S. citizenship.
Haley, the daughter of two immigrants from India, was bornNimarata Nikki Randhawa but has long used her middle name Nikki and later took her husband's surname.
Haley also again referenced 77-year-old Trump’s behavior at a rally on Friday when he apparently confused Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, suggesting that he is suffering from cognitive decline. “When you’re 80, that’s what happens. You’re just not as sharp as you used to be,” she said.
(Reporting James Oliphant and Nathan Layne; Additional reporting by Gram Slattery and Moira Warburton; Writing by Jeff Mason and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham, Nick Zieminski and Daniel Wallis)