Nikki Haley is increasingly being viewed as the most viable alternative to former President Trump, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) continues to struggle to gain traction in the primary.
The former United Nations ambassador received widespread praise for her performances in the GOP primary debates, has bumped up in primary polling and become an increasing target of Trump’s. Another former GOP presidential candidate, former Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), also threw his support behind Haley this week.
While DeSantis remains a distant second to Trump — who is the leading favorite for the GOP nomination — Haley is steadily coming up on the Florida governor’s heels.
“Nikki Haley’s rise or piqued interest, among particularly donors and Trump critics is due more to Ron DeSantis’s falling in the polls than anything else,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
Trump’s critics at the national level have taken notice.
Hurd dropped out of the GOP primary and endorsed Haley, arguing Haley “has shown a willingness to articulate a different vision for the country than Donald Trump and has an unmatched grasp on the complexities of our foreign policy.”
In a column for the Washington Post, conservative commentator George Will called on Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to drop out of the race and get behind Haley.
“This is the South Carolina senator’s choice: He can acknowledge that his energetic campaigning has failed to enkindle sufficient enthusiasm and depart as he campaigned, cheerfully,” Will wrote. “Or he can try to become someone whom, to his credit, he has no aptitude for being — another peddler of synthetic anger, stoking today’s rage culture.”
Will, a longtime columnist at the Post, is also a contributor to cable news channel NewsNation, an outlet that is owned by Nexstar Media Group, which also owns The Hill.
Haley’s campaign has employed a strategy of focusing heavily on retail politics in the early contest states, which her allies say is a strength of hers.
“The rise of Nikki is real in New Hampshire,” said Matthew Bartlett, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “It has happened because she has campaigned incredibly tough in an incredibly authentic New Hampshire presidential way. She’s done over 50 town halls and events. She’s been meeting with voters. She’s really earned every step.”
Haley has seen a rise in state-level polling, particularly in New Hampshire. Polling from Suffolk University, The Boston Globe and USA Today released earlier this month found Haley in second place behind Trump, who led her 49 percent to 19 percent.
Nationally, Haley has moved into third place, closely behind DeSantis. A Fox News poll released this week showed Haley growing her support to 10 percent, while DeSantis came in at 13 percent. The same poll showed Trump dominating the field with 59 percent support.
In a Real Clear Politics polling average, Trump leads the field with 58.3 percent support, DeSantis trails at 12.9 percent support and Haley comes in third with 7.6 percent support.
Her recent rise in the polls comes after two particularly strong debate performances from Haley, in which she styled herself as the adult in the room on the crowded debate stage. Haley’s campaign reported raising more than $11 million in the third quarter of the year and ended the quarter with $11.6 million cash on hand — and her campaign gained close to 40,000 new donors.
Republicans also point out Trump has seemingly moved his ire toward Haley as she climbs in the polls and gets more attention in the media. Following the second debate, Trump called Haley “birdbrain” on his Truth Social platform and his campaign followed up by delivering a birdcage to her hotel.
“Donald Trump absolutely views Nikki Haley as a threat,” Stroman said. “One thing that is going to be a little bit interesting is to see how he goes after her and in what type of way.”
“Nikki Haley was one of the few members of his administration to leave the White House on excellent terms,” he continued. “He’s always going to punch down and the problem for him is that Nikki seems to be on the up.”
Trump’s allies caution about reading too much into the former president’s attacks on his former ambassador.
“I think that that is showmanship and he is dealing with the fact that right now, she appears to be flavor of the month,” O’Connell said.
As for DeSantis, the Florida governor downplayed her experience as U.N. ambassador during a trip to New Hampshire.
“I think the U.N. is a worthless organization, quite frankly. So that, to me, is not something. All they do is sanction Israel,” DeSantis said. “I think that their behavior has been a complete disgrace. But you also have the issue of, OK, who’s fluent in this stuff, who knows kind of where they’re trying to go with America’s role, and quite frankly, most of those other Republican candidates, they’re just rehashing the failed foreign policy of the last 25 years where we ended up in Afghanistan for 20 years.”
Republicans note that DeSantis has poured more resources into Iowa versus New Hampshire and argue Iowa will set the stage for the primary season.
“There is a very long time before voters in Iowa will cast their ballots,” Stroman said. “No candidate is getting ready to be coronated. Nobody is getting ready to be out of the race.”
Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor, urged the governor to reassure donors amid the negative headlines surrounding his campaign.
It comes as the Haley and DeSantis campaigns courted megadonors in Dallas on Friday.
“Donors are looking for an alternative to Trump. If not DeSantis, who? It’s on DeSantis to reassure donors that this is a two-man race,” Eberhart said. “Donors were there but have started to waiver because of all the negative media coverage of the DeSantis campaign.”
Still, it’s difficult for many political observers to see how roughly three months out from the first nominating contest anyone can leapfrog over Trump’s massive lead.
“Barring something extreme, Donald Trump is going to be the Republican presidential nominee and there is pretty much nothing that the Trump critics, at least on the Republican side, can do to stop that from happening,” O’Connell said. “They [the donors] are starting to see the field as Trump is and that Trump has unfinished business and it is his time. And I don’t know if anyone can overcome that narrative because it’s setting in and it’s setting in fast.”
However, Trump’s seemingly growing legal issues and the complications that come with it may be giving his field of opponents hope.
“Because of the legal stuff weighing over Trump’s head, that;’s why I don’t think you’re going to see anybody getting out,” O’Connell said. “And that’s how it’s going to be difficult to make the case that one of them can consolidate behind him. That is the big problem.”