Deft yet serious, quick-witted yet substantive, Nikki Haley’s debate performances are feats of political athleticism that few can match. Surrounded by men trying to shout and tear her down, she skewers foes, exhibiting a specifically female form of calm yet gleeful aggression. She floats like a fighter jet and stings like a missile.
And based on that she has surged—into a distant second place in a Republican primary that barely deserves to be called a contest. Former President Donald Trump continues to lead the GOP field nationally, with a dominating 59% of the vote, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll, while Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, has edged into second with 15%, virtually tying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s 14%. No other candidate breaks double digits.
Trump’s support in the poll, conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 4, was unchanged from the Journal’s poll four months ago, while Haley has risen seven points and DeSantis has slipped slightly. Nevertheless, to the extent there has been movement in the lower ranks, Haley has been the surprise story of the primary, and she has done it on the strength of her debate performances. The trend continued in the fourth debate Wednesday night, as the four major remaining non-Trump candidates—Haley, DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—faced off on an obscure cable network.
If viewers didn’t already know Haley has become the one to beat, her rivals’ barrage of attacks on her made that abundantly clear. Ramaswamy called her unscrupulous and a “fascist.” DeSantis called her ineffective. Christie called her inconsistent.
“I love all the attention, fellas,” Haley said with a tight smile. “Thank you for that.”
The debates have established Haley as a hard-edged national-security hawk. She continued in that vein Wednesday, warning of the interconnectedness of the threats America faces from Iran, Russia and China. She criticized Trump, albeit far more gingerly than Christie, saying the former president was weak on China, drove up the national debt and represented “chaos.” She brushed off rivals’ attacks on her Wall Street donors: “They’re just jealous.” And she knew when to rise above the fray: Given time to answer a particularly unhinged Ramaswamy rant, in which he compared her to “a woke Dylan Mulvaney Bud Light ad,” Haley sniffed, “It’s not worth my time to respond to him.”
Haley didn’t emerge entirely unscathed Wednesday, nor was she as nimble overall as she had been in previous debates. DeSantis called her overly friendly to transgender rights, noting that as governor she expressed hostility to laws requiring people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex. (Rather than defend her former position, Haley claimed to be just as staunchly supportive of such laws as DeSantis.)
Ramaswamy charged her with buckraking since stepping down from Trump’s administration in 2018, using her paid speeches and service on corporate boards to argue she is an establishmentarian and closet liberal who would do her donors’ bidding if elected. At one point the author and biotech entrepreneur held up a notepad on which he had markered “NIKKI = CORRUPT,” to boos from the audience.
It was hardly the first time Haley and Ramaswamy had tangled onstage. Some of Haley’s most memorable moments in previous debates have come at the expense of Ramaswamy, whose trollish student-debate-club antics have driven the rest of the field to unanimous exasperation. “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows,” she said in the first debate. “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she said in the second. “You’re just scum,” she said in the third.
On Wednesday, Christie took up the cause, calling Ramaswamy “the most obnoxious blowhard in America” and defending Haley’s honor. Policy contrasts were one thing, Christie said, but Ramaswamy’s personal attacks went too far. “This is a smart, accomplished woman, and you should stop insulting her,” he said as she nodded appreciatively.
Haley has also used the debates to argue forcefully for traditional conservative positions, decrying excessive spending and calling for a muscular approach to foreign policy. On abortion, an issue that has become a serious liability for the party, the only woman in the field has been less definitive, calling for “compassion” but saying hard-line antiabortion positions won’t be viable electorally or in Congress. At a Christian conservative event in Iowa a few weeks ago, she said she would have signed a six-week abortion ban if it had passed while she was governor.
Her rivals charge that on this and other issues she has been slippery, saying whatever a particular audience wants to hear. Haley sharply criticized Trump in 2016, then defended him while serving in his cabinet; she denounced him after the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot, then said she wouldn’t run against him, then got in the race anyway. Trump has dubbed her “birdbrain,” but has yet to train his fire on her the way he has sought to humiliate DeSantis.
There are modest signs of momentum for Haley, who has moved up in the polls (while still trailing far behind Trump) in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Last week she won the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, the vast grassroots and donor network headed by the billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. Numerous big-money conservatives (as well as some Democrats) are backing her or considering doing so. Prominent anti-Trump voices like George Will have urged the other candidates to get out to allow her to go one-on-one with Trump, arguing it is the only way the front-runner can possibly be beaten. (While former Rep. Will Hurd endorsed Haley after withdrawing from the race, fellow dropouts Mike Pence, Tim Scott and Doug Burgum have kept their powder dry.)
By performing strongly in yet another debate, Haley on Wednesday likely increased her appeal to those constituencies. Yet in Trump’s absence, the debates have been little more than a poorly watched sideshow.
With just weeks to go before voting begins in Iowa on Jan. 15, the big-picture story of the Republican primary continues to be Trump consolidating support while the others squabble over the shrinking faction of GOP voters who are looking for an alternative. Haley is polling about as well against Trump as the New Age influencer Marianne Williamson, widely regarded as a fringe candidate, is against President Biden in the Democratic primary, the Nation recently pointed out. The idea of Haley squaring off on a debate stage with Trump—much less Biden—remains a distant, improbable dream.
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