The Memo: Drama in GOP primary is all about second place

The GOP’s presidential primary has grown more dramatic — but, so far, only in terms of the battle for second place.

Former President Trump has held onto a huge lead nationally as well as in the key early states. 

An array of Trump dramas — his indictment in four criminal cases, his civil trial in New York and the most recent furor, over his description of political opponents as “vermin” — has not eroded his lead in any meaningful way.

In his slipstream, however, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is on the brink of supplanting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place, if she has not already done so.

Haley has been buoyed by strong debate performances in the three televised clashes so far, as well as an old-school focus on retail politics that has encompassed more than 60 events in New Hampshire and almost as many in Iowa, according to her campaign.

DeSantis is not about to cede his position as the main Trump alternative without a fight, however — even as virtually no one outside his campaign believes his bid has lived up to expectations so far.

DeSantis got a significant boost recently in Iowa with the endorsement of the state’s popular GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds, and his supporters emphasize the strength of his operations on the ground in the state.

A strong showing for DeSantis is imperative in Iowa, where both Trump and Haley could prove vulnerable. Trump lost the 2016 Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), while the staunchly conservative electorate in the Hawkeye State may have qualms about Haley’s nuanced view on abortion.

Haley has held to the position that a national ban on abortion in the early stages of pregnancy is politically unrealistic. However, the New York Times reported Saturday that, the previous day, she said that she would have signed a six-week ban on abortion while she was governor of South Carolina, if the legislature had passed such a measure.

The battle between Haley and DeSantis has become more fierce as Haley has gained ground.

Haley is now a clear second in New Hampshire, with at least four recent polls giving her an edge over the Florida governor. In Iowa, DeSantis retains the advantage, even though one poll earlier this month put Haley within 3 points of him. Nationally, a Fox News poll conducted within the past week also put Haley just 3 points behind DeSantis, though he held a larger edge in other polls.

There have also been media reports of major GOP donors warming up to Haley.

Earlier this month, the Haley campaign released an ad accusing DeSantis of lying over his record on fracking and drilling.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has jabbed at Haley for her past efforts as governor of South Carolina to attract Chinese investment. Last week, he also blasted her suggestion that the identity of all social media users should be verified.

Haley later diluted her initial suggestion, telling CNBC, “I don’t mind anonymous American people having free speech. What I don’t like is anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.”

The battle between the aides to each candidate is also heating up. 

DeSantis campaign communications director Andrew Romeo told this column, “No amount of money will be enough for Nikki Haley to conceal her pro-China, pro-Gaza aid, pro-gas tax and pro-[Hillary Clinton] record. As Americans look behind the curtain, they will see she does not have the extensive record of conservative achievements that Ron DeSantis boasts.”

For the Haley campaign, spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas said: “Poll after poll shows Nikki Haley is the best challenger to Donald Trump and Joe Biden” and that she is “the only candidate with the momentum to go the distance.”

Perez-Cubas added: “Ron DeSantis has a short shelf life with his Iowa-or-bust strategy. This is a two-person race — between one man and one woman.”

Haley’s backers are understandably eager to emphasize polls that have shown her beating President Biden by a wider margin than either Trump or DeSantis. 

They also contend that the calendar favors Haley given her strength in New Hampshire and the fact that her home state of South Carolina hosts the third major contest. 

Haley’s position in South Carolina was further buttressed when her fellow Palmetto Stater, Sen. Tim Scott, dropped out of the race on Nov. 12.

Boosters of DeSantis contend that the Haley balloon will deflate upon closer inspection and that their vaunted ground operation in Iowa will pay off in the end.

Dave Vasquez, the national press secretary for Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing DeSantis, told this column: “In Iowa alone, Never Back Down has knocked over 641,000 doors, galvanized close to 20,000 volunteers, collected almost 30,000 commit to caucus cards, and signed up 856 precinct captains and counting. The fact is, Iowa is won by grassroots efforts on the ground, and Never Back Down has the most organized, advanced caucus operation of anyone in the entire 2024 field.” 

Romeo, for his part, contended that there is “no way Nikki Haley can beat Donald Trump, and every dollar spent on her candidacy is an in-kind [contribution] to the Trump campaign. Ron DeSantis has the best combination of endorsements, ground game, and message in the early states, which is why the former president continues to attack only him.”

The back-and-forth between Haley and DeSantis will only get hotter from here. 

Haley has a $10 million TV ad campaign beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire in early December. The two will also clash again on Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at a debate hosted by NewsNation. 

NewsNation and The Hill are both part of Nexstar Media Group. 

Beyond the back-and-forth between Haley and DeSantis, the question remains: How much does it matter, unless one of them can somehow reel Trump in? That’s a goal that neither DeSantis nor Haley has advanced very far toward achieving, even after months of campaigning.

“The battle for second is the battle for second. We don’t nominate the person who comes in second place,” said Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC). “There is a lot of drama” between Haley and DeSantis, he added, “but to what result if it doesn’t move Trump out of the leadership spot?”

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, expressed apparently serene confidence in the former president’s chances.

“President Trump is in the dominant position in the Republican primary, and it is very clear that Republican voters believe he has the best chance of beating Joe Biden in the general election … When you have a front-runner who is ahead by so much and who is right on all of the issues, why would you go for a knock-off version or a cheap imitation?”

Miller also poured cold water on any suggestion that Trump would change his tune on nonparticipation in the debates. Trump has stayed away from every debate so far, to no obvious detriment to his campaign.

“No,” Miller said, asked about the possibility of a rethink. “President Trump is ahead by 50 points in independent polling, and there is no reason for him to debate with candidates who are at 2, 3 or 4 percent,” he said.

The RNC has, in fact, tightened the qualification criteria for the fourth debate to require 6 percent support in approved polls, but Miller’s larger point still stands.

There are some Republicans who see a pathway, albeit a narrow one, for the Trump alternatives.

GOP strategist Dan Judy argued that if Haley ran Trump even somewhat close in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then won her native South Carolina, there could be interesting days ahead in what would become a one-on-one contest.

“Haley is clearly the most talented player on the field,” said Judy, who has not worked for Haley or any other presidential candidate this cycle. “You see that in her debates, on the stump, she is very experienced, she’s run tough races before and she has a great story. A lot of voters are starting to figure that out.”

But for all that, Judy acknowledged Trump remained the favorite for the nomination.

Tellingly, even other Republicans who are skeptical of Trump acknowledge how strongly the odds now favor him, with just two months to go before Iowa.

“I won’t be voting for him. He’s not my guy. But he is really, really going to be hard to beat,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser. “He is a political powerhouse, still, in the Republican Party, and the window is closing for anyone to get close to him.

“They are running out of time.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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