Nikki Haley is increasingly threatening to supplant Ron DeSantis as the principal GOP presidential rival to Donald Trump, escalating frictions between the two candidates that are playing out before voters on the campaign trail and behind closed doors with wealthy donors.
While DeSantis held an advantage over other non-Trump candidates for much of the year, his support has eroded and Haley’s has climbed, according to interviews with voters, strategists and a review of early state polling, putting them in a contentious battle for a distant second place. Their teams circled one another at a recent private donor summit in Dallas, where they charted their respective paths before potential financial backers — many of whom have been skeptical about the ability of either to beat the former president.
In the past few days, in the midst of the war between Israel and Hamas, the two candidates have tussled over their contrasting positions, both past and present, on U.S. policy in the Middle East and how to help refugees fleeing war-torn regions. DeSantis courted voters Thursday in Haley’s home state of South Carolina, where she is leading him in the polls, before they crossed paths Friday in Iowa, where the Florida governor is anchoring his candidacy and has built a much larger footprint.
The intensifying competition was evident in Iowa, where some voters said they had moved to Haley from DeSantis and the two appeared at a multicandidate event. Both focused on foreign policy, avoiding direct shots at each other in their remarks. Haley’s campaign on Friday released a video labeling him “desperate” for attacking her, and when asked by a voter about her stance on accepting refugees from the Middle East at a town hall in Pella on Saturday she used the opportunity to criticize DeSantis.
“God bless Ron DeSantis, because he continues to try and bring up this refugee situation. He has said that I want to take Gazan refugees; I have never said that,” Haley said. “He can keep doing it, but that’s what happens when a campaign starts to spiral out.”
For the first time since making a small expenditure against Haley in April, Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting the Florida governor, invested significant money on the airwaves in recent days opposing Haley, echoing comments DeSantis has made publicly. They spent nearly $1 million airing a new ad in Iowa, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission, highlighting DeSantis’s opposition to allowing refugees from Gaza into the U.S. and suggesting that Haley would be open to that idea. The ad misconstrued Haley’s remarks in a recent CNN interview and her campaign underscored that she is opposed both to providing U.S. aid to Gaza and to sheltering Gaza refugees in the U.S.
The back-and-forth between the two camps marked a combative new phase of the GOP race that has echoes of 2016 — where Trump’s lower-polling rivals trained much of their fire on one another rather than on him, a strategy that ultimately helped Trump win the nomination. Both Haley and DeSantis, who has been more forcefully criticizing the former president in recent weeks, are trailing Trump by an average of between 40 and 50 points in the polls. But advisers to both candidates see a narrowing of the field as an essential element to toppling Trump.
That consolidation could happen sooner rather than later as other candidates such as former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) are struggling. The challenges for lower-tier candidates have led some Republicans to envision a contest that eventually comes down to three finalists: a runaway favorite in Trump and two longer-shots with sharply contrasting pitches.
Haley rose to third in a Washington Post average of national polling from October, with 8 percent support to DeSantis’s 14 percent. She’s pulled into third in Iowa, where DeSantis’s support is still noticeably stronger, and jumped ahead of DeSantis in recent surveys of New Hampshire and South Carolina.
DeSantis operatives and allies acknowledge that Haley is having a “moment,” and some increasingly view her as the main threat to his efforts to consolidate voters looking for an alternative. But they also argue she appeals primarily to a smaller, anti-Trump segment of the Republican electorate that many candidates are fighting over, and that she can’t win enough voters from the pro-Trump majority of the party to defeat Trump in a head-to-head.
In a closed-door address to donors this month in Park City, Utah, at a conference organized by former House speaker Paul D. Ryan and attended by Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Haley addressed the potential financiers who do not want to see Trump win the nomination. She bluntly told them that “sitting on the sidelines is not an option” and suggested their reluctance to engage has been a critical factor in Trump’s dominance. “You need to make a choice — and I hope you choose me,” she told them, according to several people who described her remarks in the private session.
At the meeting of GOP megadonors who are part of the American Opportunity Alliance in Dallas — where the teams of both DeSantis and Haley were invited to present their respective cases — DeSantis campaign advisers argued that consolidation of the field would help DeSantis but not Haley, partly because 90 percent of DeSantis’s voters would migrate to Trump if he dropped out, according to several people familiar with the presentation, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private comments.
At that same gathering, Haley’s team cited polls showing her ahead of DeSantis in New Hampshire and argued that she is closing in on him in Iowa. They also noted her cash advantage over DeSantis, who had about $5 million left for the primary and $1 million in debts on reports recently filed with the FEC — compared to her $9.1 million in cash reserves for the primary. Haley’s advisers told the donors at the Dallas meeting that the GOP contest is “a two-person race between one man and one woman,” according to people familiar with the presentation.
“We have to have a new generational leader, one that’s going to understand that these threats are real and we need new solutions to do with it,” Haley said on Friday in Iowa as she detailed the foreign policy experience she gained through her role as U.N. ambassador.
“I’m the only one running for president that can tell you I have delivered on 100 percent of my promises. Everything I told the people in Florida I will do, I’ve accomplished,” DeSantis said at the same event.
DeSantis, 45, and Haley, 51, both represent a new generation of leadership in the Republican Party, but they have charted different paths to power. Haley — a conservative former South Carolina governor who has long appealed to the foreign policy hawks as well as moderates in her party, even as she has embraced some polarizing positions — has campaigned on her ability to find consensus on difficult issues such as the handling of the confederate flag in her state and abortion. DeSantis, by contrast, has relished his role as a bomb-throwing firebrand in Florida — continually running to Trump’s right on many issues in his quest for the nomination.
Both were once allies of Trump, who endorsed DeSantis in his first tough race for governor of Florida and chose Haley as his ambassador to the United Nations. Haley has a more complicated history with Trump — criticizing and opposing him when he ran in the 2016 GOP primary before joining his administration the following year.
She later said she would not run against the former president, but ultimately decided to do so. During the first debate, which Trump skipped, Haley called Trump “the most disliked politician in America,” drawing some boos. “We can’t win a general election that way,” she added.
Haley is now drawing the DeSantis camp’s attention after flying under the radar for much of the race. She and her team have criticized DeSantis off and on throughout this year, faulting his efforts to punish Disney, for example, or suggesting that he is a Trump imitator in a fall campaign memo.
Trump has branded both candidates with disparaging nicknames. In a sign of Haley’s rising influence, he has gone after her more in recent weeks than he had before.
As recently as July, a DeSantis campaign memo was more focused on Scott than Haley. At a Never Back Down briefing with donors just ahead of the first GOP debate, strategist Jeff Roe said entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy could become a problem and that the super PAC was spreading opposition research on him.
The DeSantis camp hopes growing scrutiny of Haley will take a toll. At the same time, they publicly reject the notion that Haley is threatening to eclipse DeSantis — insisting that they are merely drawing out key policy contrasts between the two candidates’ records just as they have done with other candidates.
“Ron DeSantis will always stand up against dangerous ideas and in support of Israel,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement Friday. “That doesn’t change the fact that this is a two-man race for the nomination.”
The DeSantis campaign and its allies are drawing attention to Haley’s past statements on refugees, pointing to her initial support for resettlements as governor of South Carolina and her opposition in 2015 to Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. The attacks do not note her 2015 opposition to refugees from Syria and loyalty to Israel as U.N. ambassador.
“Nikki Haley has a history of weakly flip-flopping on critical issues and so far, she has never had to defend her actions,” said Kristin Davison, chief operating officer of Never Back Down. “She’s provided an opportunity with her own missteps to fully expose her record versus her rhetoric. She will not be able to survive that.”
The Haley campaign said the attacks from DeSantis and his allies were proof of her ascent: “Nikki has a long and strong record of taking on Hamas and standing up for Israel. Since announcing, DeSantis insisted it’s a ‘two-man race’ between him and Trump. As his fundraising and poll numbers plummet, he’s lobbing false attacks at Nikki because he knows it’s a two-person race — Nikki and Trump,” her spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement.
In Iowa on Friday, DeSantis spoke of the ties between Israel and Florida, and touted his role in organizing flights out of the country. Haley highlighted her foreign policy experience, recalling telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “finish them” — when speaking about the threat posed by Hamas — and participating in hostage negotiations. Both received standing ovations, with many in the audience sporting black and gold Iowa Hawkeyes jerseys.
Haley’s aides recently accused DeSantis and his allied super PAC of lying about her record, pointing to fact checks that rated claims by Never Back Down as false. In an Oct. 15 interview with CNN, Haley had questioned why Arab countries weren’t doing more to help innocent Palestinians, and she had argued that many Palestinians in Gaza want to be “free from this terrorist rule” of Hamas.
But her campaign underscored that Haley “opposes taxpayer dollars for Gaza just like she did when she helped eliminate it at the U.N. The money is too easily diverted to Hamas and is not a good use of tax dollars. Arab countries should step up if they want to help Palestinians as much as they claim.”
While DeSantis and his allied super PAC have built a larger ground presence in Iowa, a state Haley is seen as weaker in compared to New Hampshire and South Carolina, voters in the Hawkeye State have taken notice of Haley.
Iowa voter Karen Skovgard, who plans to participate in the Republican caucuses and calls herself a “moderate,” said she was impressed with Haley’s “demeanor, her ability to take charge of things.”
Skovgard said she trusts her on foreign policy and liked her “practical” answer on abortion during the first GOP debate, where Haley set herself apart from her rivals by arguing that most federal abortion bans would never pass Congress.
Nikki Kemper said her vote was for DeSantis until she attended Haley’s town hall in Cedar Rapids Friday afternoon — the first time she saw Haley in person.
“Hands down, she won it,” Kemper said, citing Haley’s broader focus on international issues. “She really hit on every topic across local and international, and I think DeSantis didn’t really cover a lot of the same topics. So I just felt like she was more [well] rounded and really had the experience overseas, as well, to help sell it.”
Some early-state voters who are hoping for a strong Trump alternative are waiting to see who emerges as the most viable candidate of the two.
“Anyone but Trump,” Kirk Hayes replied immediately at a DeSantis event in Algona, Iowa late this summer. But he wasn’t sure whether any of the contenders could topple Trump. “No one’s really come out in front.”
In a follow-up interview this month, Hayes, 87, said he was still considering both Haley and DeSantis, even though the Florida governor is “a little more conservative than I am,” Hayes said. “But it’s not a dealbreaker for me.”
Wells reported from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Scott Clement contributed to this report.