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Haley and DeSantis vie to provide alternative to Trump in fourth Republican primary debate

The former ambassador to the United Nations has closed the gap on the Florida governor in the polls, with the former president still holding a commanding lead

Nikki Haley y Ron DeSantis
The former governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, and the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, during the third debate of the Republican presidential primaries, on November 8 in Miami.MIKE SEGAR (REUTERS)

The Republican aspirants to the White House will face each other again Wednesday in the fourth primary debate. Former president Donald Trump, the front-runner in the polls among GOP voters, will again miss the appointment in the belief that the best way to preserve his advantage is to remain on the sidelines. In the first debate in August there were eight candidates, but on this occasion the field has been reduced to four. Among them are two — the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley — who are competing to provide an alternative to Trump.

The trajectories of the two candidates have played out in reverse. DeSantis, 45, was on Trump’s heels in voting intention before he officially entered the campaign. However, since then, he has seen his support crumble. He launched his candidacy in a failed Twitter interview hosted by Elon Musk, and has since failed to grasp the tone and message of the campaign. He dithered over whether to attack Trump as the former president mocked him. His strategy for the debates was leaked, which he was then unable to implement. And his campaign has suffered from management problems. Some big donors have begun to turn their backs on DeSantis and his standing in the polls has plummeted from a high of around 40% to 13%, according to the average of large polls calculated by FiveThirtyEight. Trump is currently polling at 59% in voter intention.

Haley, by contrast, is experiencing an upsurge in her campaign. The 51-year-old recently won the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, the powerful and influential conservative network founded by the billionaire Koch brothers. She shone in previous debates, where she displayed her expertise in international politics, her willingness to tackle major reforms, and a firm but moderate tone. Her clashes with 38-year-old businessman Vivek Ramaswamy have brought out her character. Polls point to Haley as the candidate who would have the best chance of ensuring a Republican victory over Joe Biden in the November 5, 2024 presidential election, but for that to happen she would first have to defeat Trump in the primaries. Among Republican voters, Haley’s voting intention has risen to 10.5% and in some polls she is already ahead of DeSantis. Overtaking him would give Haley a huge boost when the moment of truth arrives.

The Iowa caucuses on January 15 and the New Hampshire primary on January 23 decide only 62 of the nearly 2,500 delegates who will select the Republican nominee at the GOP convention in July 2024. However, because they open the process, the outcome is often significant.

DeSantis has the governor’s support in Iowa and has visited each and every county in the state. Much of his gamble was on emerging from the caucuses as a viable alternative to Trump. Now, however, Haley is gathering pace and there is a significant chance that the Florida governor will come in third rather than first in Iowa. Haley is already ahead in the polls in New Hampshire and in February she will play at home in South Carolina. Her candidacy appeals to moderate Republican voters, who remain unconvinced by Trump.

Testing ground for Haley

For Haley, Wednesday’s debate will serve as a testing ground for her candidacy. With fewer aspirants on stage, there will be more time for each of the participants to speak. She has taken advantage of this on previous occasions, but she needs to consolidate that trend if her campaign is ultimately to aspire to anything more than a battle for second place.

The other two participants in the debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which will be broadcast on the NewsMax network, are Ramaswamy — who was the surprise package in the first eight-way matchup in Milwaukee in August but has since deflated — and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has never stood a chance with his openly anti-Trump discourse and whose withdrawal could benefit Haley.

The other four participants from the first debate have fallen by the wayside. Former vice president Mike Pence was the first to announce his withdrawal, followed by Tim Scott, the only Black senator in the Republican Party. This week Doug Burgum, governor of North Dakota, threw in the towel. Without having participated in the debates for lack of sufficient support, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, radio host Larry Elder, businessman Perry Johnson and former Texas congressman Will Hurd, whose campaigns never even got off the ground, have also stepped aside. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, who did enter the first debate but whose role is less than marginal, has not yet formally ended his candidacy.

“The fourth debate is another fantastic opportunity for our Republican candidates to share our winning agenda with the American people,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement Monday. The debates had been a defining moment in the primary race in each election cycle, but with Trump boycotting them this year, they have lost prominence. The Republican Party is considering changing the rules and allowing debates on the eve of the primaries that are not organized by the party itself, which until now required exclusivity from the candidates, so that there are more events in the days leading up to the primaries.

While Wednesday’s debate is being held, Trump will participate in fundraising events in Florida.

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