Dec 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Debate to test Haley's momentum in GOP race

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tonight's GOP presidential debate will test whether Nikki Haley can build on the momentum she's built in the first three debates, which helped her rise from the pack to challenge Ron DeSantis as the leading alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump.

Why it matters: The former UN ambassador's rise in the polls has come as she has tried to thread a needle regarding Trump — praising the 2016 version of the former president, but now casting him as a reckless promoter of "chaos, vendettas and drama."

Zoom in: DeSantis often has appeared to be trying to out-Trump Trump, while Haley generally has been a GOP traditionalist.

  • She's countered Trump's anti-war message by advocating for U.S. leadership in the world, and has tried to find a middle ground on abortion — saying she opposes it but understands if states have different approaches.
  • The Israel-Hamas war also has given her a chance to score during the debates by showing her foreign policy chops.
  • Her goal: "Appealing to the "75% of America [that] has said they don't want a rematch between Trump and Biden."

Zoom out: Haley's tick upward in GOP polls has been evident by how other candidates are treating her.

  • DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, who's no longer in the race, all have spent debate time targeting the former South Carolina governor.

Some big-money donors who have long been looking to prevent a second Trump administration, meanwhile, are either pouring cash into Haley's campaign or saying they're interested in supporting her.

  • The political network backed by billionaire Charles Koch is now in Haley's corner.
  • JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon has encouraged Republicans to "help Nikki Haley," or risk another Trump presidency.
  • And Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund and a former backer of DeSantis, has said he may support Haley.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, an anti-Trump Democratic donor, recently gave a Haley super PAC $250,000, leading Trump and DeSantis to call Haley of being propped up by Democrats.

The intrigue: President Biden's team has been preparing to face Trump in the 2024 election, but it's also strategizing for the potential — though still unlikely — scenario that Haley becomes the GOP nominee, Biden advisers tell Axios.

  • If Haley does manage to get the nomination, Biden's team would aim to paint her as a product of Trump's MAGA machine.

State of play: Haley will be joined on the debate stage tonight by DeSantis, Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The GOP debate field has shrunk to four (from eight) with the Iowa caucuses less than six weeks away.

  • "We're going to have three to four (candidates) going into Iowa," Haley told former Sen. Scott Brown recently, outlining her hopes for the primary season.
  • "A couple will drop. They'll have two to three go into New Hampshire. A couple will drop. And I'll take on Trump in my home state of South Carolina."

The other side: Trump has said that no matter how many Republican debates there will be, he's unlikely to attend any.

  • Instead he's held counter programming, fundraisers and dinners with reporters — and ridiculed his opponents.
  • "President Trump exercised great judgment not going (to debates), a fact that's been reinforced every time those fighting to be first-place loser show up on stage," Trump campaign manager Chris LaCivita told Axios.

Trump has called on the Republican National Committee to stop holding debates, saying they're a waste of time.

  • Some Republican strategists think that means Trump is concerned about the attention other GOP candidates continue to get as the former president faces a series of court trials in 2024.
  • "If the debates didn't matter, Trump would not be asking the RNC to stop holding them," Justin Sayfie, a former spokesman for ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, told Axios.
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