HOOKSETT, N.H. — Nikki Haley has in many ways pushed past Ron DeSantis to become the top alternative to Donald Trump, interviews with voters and operatives as well as polling data show — shifting the dynamic of the Republican presidential race less than two months before the first nominating contest.
Trump remains in control, holding a wide lead in state and national surveys as he centers his campaign on stoking grievances, vowing revenge against critics if returned to power and using the four criminal indictments he faces as a rallying cry. But the jockeying in a tier below the ex-president has moved, with Haley pulling even with DeSantis for a distant second in all-important Iowa and holding sole possession of that spot in recent surveys of New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, two subsequent contests.
Beyond those polling gains, which the former U.N. ambassador has built on well-received debate performances, Haley has also drawn fresh attention from some wealthy donors and is getting bigger crowds on the trail with a pitch rooted in general election appeal and reversing the GOP’s losing streak, as well as building consensus on some divisive issues such as abortion.
“I think she’s — if you look at the race as a whole — clearly in second place right now,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based Republican consultant. “The question for her is can she sustain this and have an organization ready in Iowa to organize on caucus night and then maintain that through New Hampshire?”
Haley faces some significant challenges in the months ahead. Her pitch to move on from Trump is out of step in a party where he is largely beloved. She is facing attacks from critics who claim she tries to have it both ways on big issues, from her shifting stance on Trump to her lack of specifics on abortion. There are questions about the strength of her ground game, particularly in Iowa, where DeSantis and Trump have laid stronger foundations, local operatives said. Chris Christie’s continued presence in the race complicates her ability to consolidate the support of anti-Trump independents in New Hampshire. And there is a long record in recent presidential elections of candidates experiencing a late burst of momentum only to fizzle out.
Haley’s campaign sees a calendar that lines up well enough to open a narrow path, wagering that the field will shrink by the time of the South Carolina primary, she and her allies have said, setting her up for a head-to-head contest against Trump in her home state. But DeSantis still runs ahead of Haley in national polls and his allies are wagering on a strong Iowa showing that could boost his chances elsewhere.
Mark Harris, the lead strategist for a pro-Haley super PAC, described a strategy of “a strong showing in the first two states that allow us to have a strong showing in South Carolina, and set up for Super Tuesday” and contrasted her “eggs in multiple baskets” versus DeSantis’s focus on Iowa. Much of Haley’s efforts have been focused on New Hampshire, where she campaigned Monday and hit both President Biden and fellow Republicans.
“It’s not over exaggerating to say the world is on fire. There’s a lot going on in our country, and it’s not good,” Haley said. “There’s nothing I would love more to tell you that Biden did that to us.” She added, “But I’ve always spoken in hard truths and I’m going to do that with you today, our Republicans did that to us, too.”
Haley has criticized Trump in more direct terms, arguing he cannot win the general election in 2024. Trump has started to attack Haley periodically, nicknaming her “birdbrain,” but still focuses most of his ire on DeSantis.
Haley’s trajectory has brought fresh scrutiny to her record and forceful attacks from opponents over her encouragement of investments from China when she was governor of South Carolina to her hawkish foreign policy views, including her support for U.S. military aid to Ukraine, some of which are out of step with many in the increasingly isolationist GOP base.
The DeSantis campaign has suggested she is too moderate to be the GOP nominee, hitting her for citing Hillary Clinton as an inspiration to run for office and criticizing her for a past social media post saying that the death of George Floyd “needs to be personal and painful for everyone.” At the same time, the Biden campaign has branded her a MAGA extremist, pointing to her signing a 20-week abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest and for recently saying she would have signed a six-week ban as governor of South Carolina, even as she advocates finding consensus on the issue.
Haley has responded to such attacks by reminding voters she’s been underestimated before in races she later won and warning her opponents “I kick back.” She’s responded to opponents sharply at the debates, which have at times featured gendered attacks, prompting concerns about sexism in the party. Haley is the only woman in the GOP race.
At a town hall in Nashua on Monday night, Christie, a former New Jersey governor, appeared to suggest that Haley has made conflicting statements to say what people want to hear, and added, “Beware of those folks, because you give them the power, they won’t stand by anything they tell you. They’ll do whatever is politically expedient at the moment.”
Attendees packed Haley’s event here Monday afternoon, a campaign stop that reflected both her political promise and challenges. Around half of the room raised their hands when Haley asked who had never seen her before. Many said that they don’t like Trump or DeSantis, but some were still undecided between Haley and Christie, a onetime Trump ally turned sharp critic.
One attendee asked Haley if she would consider picking Christie as vice president — an idea that Haley did not commit to but that several voters framed as their fantasy ticket.
Asked about a potential alliance with Haley to consolidate support to defeat Trump, Christie said, “I don’t think either one of us is interested in that at the moment.”
A recent Washington Post-Monmouth University poll of New Hampshire’s Republican race showed Trump leading with 46 percent support, while Haley had 18 percent. Christie was third with 11 percent and DeSantis lagged behind at 7 percent.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) — a vocal Trump critic who campaigned with Haley and Christie on Monday and was slated to appear with DeSantis on Tuesday — has also been dropping hints that he is getting closer to an endorsement.
Sununu said there are three viable candidates in the state “that are all working hard, trying to really coalesce the vote and the opportunities here in New Hampshire,” and on Monday praised Haley and Christie while appearing with them on the trail.
In New Hampshire, independent voters can vote in partisan primaries, which, along with the state’s less restrictive stance on abortion, works in favor of Haley and Christie, strategists say.
Corinne Pullen, a retired nurse from Canterbury who identified as an independent and is leaning toward supporting Haley in the GOP primary, called Trump a “braggadocio buffoon” and said she would vote for Biden again over him next year.
“I used to be a conservative Republican until Trump, and she would bring me back to the party,” Pullen said of Haley. “I voted for Joe Biden and I would definitely vote for her. I feel like she would bring our country back together, she’s got a warmth and a maternal — she’d embrace us.”
Trump remains dominant in New Hampshire, as he does across the country. He won big here in the 2016 race and appeals to a sizable base of largely White, working class Republicans in the state. Trump’s most recent visit to the state stoked controversy, as he denigrated his opponents and critics on Veterans Day, calling those on the other side of the aisle “vermin” in an echo of fascist dictators.
Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung noted polling that shows Haley and DeSantis trailing far behind Trump. “I guess that’s what a Nikki Haley surge looks like,” Cheung said.
Before New Hampshire votes, Iowa will hold its caucuses. The reputable NBC News-Des Moines Register-Mediacom Iowa poll showed Haley and DeSantis each drew 16 percent support last month, with Trump at 43 percent. That represented a jump in support for Haley, who is not considered a natural political fit for the socially conservative state.
Haley’s campaign has a notably smaller footprint and ground operation in Iowa than DeSantis or Trump, local strategists said. Despite the limited staff and organizing, she has drawn sizable crowds in the state. A town hall for Haley in Ankeny on Friday was so crowded it was hard to park.
A handful of young men at the parking lot entrance were trying to draw attention to Haley’s widely panned proposal that week to require that social media users get their identities verified, which she later walked back. Two of them wore jumpsuits and stood behind makeshift prison bars, while referencing a pseudonym-using conservative podcast host.
But the very online critique of Haley was lost on the largely older crowd that filtered in for the event. “I don’t use social media,” one man said.
Many Iowans looking for a Trump alternative said in recent interviews they are deciding between Haley and DeSantis. One was Fred Schuster, a 68-year-old retired Republican, who came out to Haley’s town hall in Ankeny. He was impressed by DeSantis’s record as governor in Florida, but he knew that polls have shown Haley leading Biden and thought she had solid credentials, too.
Plus, DeSantis struck him as stiff when they snapped a picture together last month at Smokey Row Coffee.
“He stood there like this,” Schuster said with a grin, snapping his arms to his side like a penguin. “We’re not electing people on their personalities,” he added, but then said: “I don’t know that many people are going to have a beer with DeSantis, but I think they would with Haley.”
Sue Frampton, an Iowa retiree who attended the same Ankeny town hall, spends time in California and remembered being “taken with” DeSantis when she had the chance to hear him speak at the Reagan Library early this year. He lost momentum, she observed, though she wasn’t quite sure why.
“It’s sort of an Iowa thing to say, but she kind of outshines him,” Frampton said of Haley and DeSantis. “Her personality comes out.”
A new outside group with strong ties to DeSantis, called Fight Right, just started reserving nearly $1 million in ads from Thanksgiving through the end of the month, according to AdImpact, which said the commercials are expected to attack Haley. A super PAC under that name filed with the FEC in mid-November, days after Haley’s campaign announced a large ad buy, at the same time a Tallahassee-based nonprofit called Fight Right was incorporated.
The nonprofit’s directors include DeSantis adviser David Dewhirst, DeSantis appointee Jeff Aaron and DeSantis-linked lobbyist Scott Ross. Some DeSantis donors have been critical of the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, but it was not immediately clear who is funding Fight Right. “Fight Right was created to help tell voters the truth about politicians who break their promises and abandon conservative principles — politicians like Nikki Haley. Fight Right will join the fight with the premier DeSantis Super PAC, Never Back Down, to achieve a DeSantis victory,” Dewhirst said in a statement.
DeSantis’s team argues Haley doesn’t have enough appeal with Trump supporters to win, with campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo declaring that “every dollar spent on her candidacy is an in-kind for the Trump campaign.” Advisers say DeSantis can pierce the sense of inevitability around Trump’s candidacy with a strong performance out of the gate in Iowa — where he has concentrated his resources and has the endorsement of Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) — paving the way for more voters, including Trump backers, to swing his way in subsequent states.
“Nikki has the Never-Trump, Wall Street establishment behind her right now,” said Kristin Davison, chief operating officer of Never Back Down. “Unfortunately for her, she has no where to grow from there and at the end of the day, those Never-Trump voters will coalesce around the only real conservative who can beat Donald Trump — Ron DeSantis.”
To many Republicans, however, the argument of who can be the strongest Trump alternative is of little consequence given his command in the state, where he drew a large and enthusiastic crowd over the weekend and disparaged Haley and DeSantis.
Haley’s ascent in the early states has drawn the attention of many wealthy GOP donors who want to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination but had been skeptical that any of his rivals had the mettle to defeat him. Some have been drawn to her views on abortion and foreign policy, including her staunch support for Israel.
The battle for donors between Haley and DeSantis has heated up over the last two months, most notably when their representatives were asked to map out their respective paths to victory at a gathering of the American Opportunity Alliance — a group that includes some of the party’s most influential donors including Paul Singer, Ken Griffin and Kelly and Joe Craft.
Kelly Craft — who, like Haley, served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador — and her husband have not taken sides in the primary. But they are hosting a fundraiser for Haley in the coming weeks after hosting one for DeSantis in September that netted more than $300,000. The Crafts declined to comment.
Griffin, the CEO of Citadel who had seemed content to stay on the sidelines this cycle, recently signaled his interest in Haley in a Nov. 14 interview with Bloomberg Television, stating that he was “actively contemplating” putting his financial support behind Haley and getting close to “the finish line” on that decision. A representative for Griffin declined further comment on his thinking.
Eric Levine, another influential donor and New York attorney who raised money for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) before he exited the race, is now raising money for Haley and hosting a fundraiser for her in New York City in early December and calling for lower polling candidates to “demonstrate their patriotism” by suspending their bids and endorsing her.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Christie indicated he has no plans to drop out of the race and that his focus is on Trump, not Haley. He said there is not a responsibility to consolidate, but a responsibility to win.
Knowles reported from Ankeny, Iowa. Reston reported from Los Angeles.