Nikki Haley’s stock has risen in the Republican Party, and recent polls bolster her claim that she would be the party’s strongest general election candidate against President Biden next November. Right now, however, she is on a collision course with Ron DeSantis in a competition that will intensify ahead of January’s Iowa caucuses.
There is little mystery left to the Republican nomination contest. Former president Donald Trump holds a wide lead over his opponents and appears likely to prevail. A remaining question is whether anyone can emerge as his principal challenger and, if that were to happen, would it change the dynamics?
Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former governor of South Carolina, and DeSantis, the second-term governor of Florida, are the only two candidates in the race with any realistic hope of becoming Trump’s lone opponent. Both have executive experience and would represent a generational change for their party, but they are stylistic opposites.
DeSantis has presented himself as a more competent version of Trump, someone who shares many of the former president’s positions but with the claim that he could get done what Trump did not. Haley struggled earlier with how much to distance herself from Trump but now calls him a certain loser in the general election. She offers herself as real change, the face of the future of the Republican Party whose appeal might be broader than DeSantis’s.
Haley and DeSantis are conservatives, but they differ on some important questions, as Wednesday’s debate in Miami highlighted. One is the issue of continued U.S. support for Ukraine. The hawkish Haley is strongly for it. DeSantis fudged, skirting a direct answer with references to securing the U.S.-Mexico border and to the threat China poses in the Indo-Pacific region.
On abortion, Haley is strongly opposed to the procedure but argued that her party needs to talk more inclusively about the issue. She also said that Republicans are misleading the public with talk of a national abortion ban, rightly noting that there are not 60 votes in the Senate for any such policy.
DeSantis, who signed a bill in Florida banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, did not highlight that fact in the debate. He focused on the value of letting states make their own decisions while criticizing groups opposed to abortion for being “flat-footed” in the face of state referendums that have put abortion rights into state constitutions, as happened in Ohio on Tuesday.
On Social Security, Haley said she is open to raising the retirement age for younger workers and to limiting benefits for wealthy Americans. DeSantis answered the question about the future of the entitlement program by talking about bringing down overall inflation and forcing Congress to spend less money. He did not explicitly answer whether he would support raising the retirement age.
On the debate stage, DeSantis is, as one Republican strategist put it, something of a talking-points politician who responds to questions by offering snippets of his memorized stump speech. In the best characterization, he is disciplined and on-message. In less charitable terms, he comes off as robotic and overly scripted.
Haley is scripted as well but is more agile, with more natural communication skills, which she uses to her advantage. Her performances in the three Republican debates have raised her profile and boosted her standing. That Haley was the target of more attacks than anyone else in Wednesday’s debate reflects the view that she is the one candidate with momentum.
She is also sharp-tongued and combative in the face of attacks. “You’re just scum,” she said to tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at Wednesday’s debate after he cited her daughter in a back-and-forth about TikTok. It wasn’t the first time she had put down the hectoring Ramaswamy. At the Reagan Library debate in October, an exasperated Haley shot back at him, “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
Her exchanges with Ramaswamy, however, highlighted the limited utility of these debates to help Republican voters sort out a choice between Haley and DeSantis. Ramaswamy has made little progress attracting support and is seen less favorably now than when he started. He is now a distraction at a time when it becomes more urgent for Republicans to find the strongest challenger to Trump.
A substantive debate between DeSantis and Haley could reveal things about their strengths and weaknesses that these multicandidate debates have not. That probably is not in the offing, although it’s too soon to know whether any of the five candidates onstage this week will fail to qualify for the Dec. 6 debate in Alabama.
The competition between Haley and DeSantis principally will play out in campaign appearances and through television advertising in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. If one of them hasn’t lapped the other ahead of the Super Tuesday contests in March, Republicans face a repeat of 2016 in which it was Trump against a big field. That is the ideal setup for the former president, who benefits from splintered opposition.
Recent general election polls have shown Trump leading Biden nationally and in some key battleground states. Those same polls have shown Haley as an even stronger candidate against the current president.
Combined results from six swing states in polls conducted by the New York Times and Siena College showed Trump leading Biden by four percentage points but Haley ahead of Biden by eight. DeSantis led Biden by one point. In individual battleground states, the Times-Siena surveys put Haley’s lead over Biden as bigger than Trump’s in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Haley’s path to becoming the main alternative to Trump is slightly better than DeSantis’s, but to do so, she must do well in Iowa. The most recent Iowa Poll showed each at 16 percent to Trump’s 43 percent. But she was rising and DeSantis falling a bit.
Their differing trajectories suggest that she has momentum and that his campaign is sputtering there. But the caucuses are still two months off — they are scheduled for Jan. 15 — and the Florida governor has other assets in Iowa on which to draw.
One is that, among all Republican candidates, he is seen more favorably than any other, including Trump. Also, more Iowans name him as their second choice than pick Haley.
DeSantis got what could be a major boost in the past week when he was endorsed by popular Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who has sparred with Trump. The endorsement caught many Iowa political activists by surprise. For DeSantis, the timing could not have been better.
DeSantis also has more significant campaign infrastructure, thanks to his well-funded super PAC Never Back Down. He plans to campaign in all 99 counties. Haley is running a much slimmer campaign and is taking a more-targeted approach. If she stays on her course, she can expect a barrage of negative ads.
In New Hampshire, Haley is in second place in the polls and ahead of DeSantis. But other obstacles exist there. One is the presence of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has built his campaign with a New Hampshire-centric focus and as the toughest critic of Trump.
If Haley comes to the New Hampshire primary with some momentum from Iowa, Christie’s hold on anti-Trump Granite State voters would complicate her ambition to break from the rest of the field. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is weighing an endorsement and is focused on either Haley or DeSantis.
To isolate Trump in a one-on-one contest, Haley will need a strong second in New Hampshire and the swift collapse of the rest of the field as the campaign moves to her home state of South Carolina. She might seem well-positioned to claim that status after the early states cast ballots, but the road ahead will be bumpy.