Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are set to clash at Wednesday’s GOP primary debate in Miami as they look to solidify their position as the main alternative to former President Trump.
The tension between the two has heated up in recent weeks as Haley has usurped DeSantis from his second-place perch in several polls.
In a memo released Tuesday, DeSantis’s campaign said Haley and the other candidates are playing the part of a “spoiler.”
“Every dollar the Pro-Haley community collects or spends should also be listed as an ‘in-kind’ contribution on Trump’s campaign FEC reports,” the campaign wrote.
In a separate memo, Haley’s campaign referred to DeSantis as “a sinking ship” and argued Haley was “rising.”
Haley has surged to second place in polls out of the early states of Iowa and South Carolina. Another survey, the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll, has the two tied at 16 percent support.
Haley’s rise in the polls came after strong showings in the first two debates, in which she had several notable and fiery moments. Her debate performances have earned her campaign a boost in interest and fundraising, as well as a few attacks from Trump, her former boss.
“Nikki Haley has shown that if you come for her, you better not miss,” said Alex Stroman, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist. “That’s the reason that she has skyrocketed; she’s been the candidate that’s been on the rise.”
Haley’s allies argue her consistency on the debate stage and campaign trail has paid off, as opposed to other candidates in the race who have not seen a rise in the polls.
“It’s more of a question of what we’re going to see from the others that will be kind of what I’m watching for and what everyone is watching for,” said Preya Samsundar, a spokesperson with the pro-Haley SFA Fund Inc. PAC.
Much of the political world was shocked when most of the candidates on stage at the first primary debate this year in Milwaukee did not direct their fire at DeSantis, who at the time was polling in a solid second place.
Instead, Vivek Ramaswamy found himself in the firing line, while DeSantis largely flew under the radar.
“Nikki has largely come out of these debates doing incredibly well, but it hasn’t been a good debate for any of the others on the stage,” Samsundar continued. “They’ve been downright lackluster, even disappointing.”
DeSantis held his own during the second debate in Simi Valley, Calif., drawing applause lines and criticizing Trump. However, he did not generate any particularly buzzworthy moments. But since the debate, DeSantis and his allies have ratcheted up their attacks on Haley in interviews and ads.
“I think that he realizes that Nikki is the candidate to beat if you want to be viewed as the person who can take on Donald Trump,” Samsundar said.
But DeSantis’s allies argue the third debate’s location in the governor’s home state presents a unique opportunity for him.
“He’s on home turf here, and the candidates are coming into his house,” said Kristin Davison, chief operating officer at the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down. “He’s going to have a great platform to talk about what he has said he would do and achieve.”
“We’re going to be in Miami. His victories in 2022, especially in Miami Dade County, were what had so many people talking about him running for president in the first place,” she said, referring to the Florida Republicans’ sweep in last year’s midterm elections.
Additionally, DeSantis’s allies question whether Haley has the right brand to win a Republican presidential nomination in a GOP that has been dominated by Trump for years.
“She would have done great in the 2008 primary but she is not aligned with where the party is and where the country is today,” Davison said. “She is running a campaign that is set for 2008, not one that is set for 2024.”
Others argue DeSantis is better suited to take on Trump in the current age of the Republican Party.
“I do think that if Donald Trump were to not be in this race, I do think that more folks would go to Ron DeSantis,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based GOP strategist. “I just don’t see it among the grassroots that Haley quite gets America First in the way that DeSantis does.”
Haley’s supporters argue other candidates could drop out of the race at this stage of the campaign, following in the footsteps of former Vice President Mike Pence, who quit last month. According to them, the supporters of those other candidates could theoretically go to Haley.
But Trump remains a massive roadblock to any path to victory Haley or DeSantis might have.
According to the Real Clear Politics polling average of the GOP primary, Trump leads with 57.9 percent support, followed by DeSantis at 13.4 percent. Haley rounds out the top three with 8.9 percent support.
Additionally, Trump has seen polling this week that could bode well for him going into the general election. A survey from The New York Times and Sienna College found Trump leading President Biden in five key battleground states.
“Maybe Never Trumpers might coalesce around her, but that doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot when you see some of these general election polls,” O’Connell said.
Trump’s GOP critics, on the other hand, are urging the candidates on Wednesday’s stage to focus their fire on Trump rather than at each other.
“They have to make the case for why voters should choose them over him,” Stroman said. “At the end of the day, it can’t be a battle for second place because second place is first loser.”