For months, Nikki Haley campaigned in relative obscurity.
But after two debates in which the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations hammered her top-billed rivals while leaving virtually unscathed herself, and a summer in which her national and early-state polling improved while opponents stagnated, a growing number of Republicans see her entering a two-person contest with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place, as each seeks to be the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump heading into the early states this winter.
Even before the next debate in November, the campaigns are set to go head-to-head: A collective of major Republican donors, known as the American Opportunity Alliance, is summoning representatives from both the DeSantis and Haley campaigns to Dallas on Oct. 13 to make presentations about why the deep-pocketed donor group should back them as the main Trump alternative in the GOP race.
The candidates themselves will not be at the meeting, which is being coordinated by megadonors Ken Griffin, Harlan Crow and Paul Singer, according to five sources familiar with the event, some of whom are directly involved in planning.
Donors are not expected to be asked to formally consolidate their support behind one candidate during the meeting. But the gathering offers both Haley and DeSantis camps to try and convince the group their candidate is the most viable alternative to Trump, who leads the GOP primary polls by wide margins.
Big anti-Trump donors tried a similar strategy to slow Trump in 2016, a plan that ultimately fell flat. But once again, Republicans who are eager to move the party past Trump are acknowledging their need to consolidate the primary field should they have any hope of overtaking Trump as the party’s front-runner.
“I think without question it’s down to Haley and DeSantis,” said a longtime Republican operative, one of a half-dozen GOP insiders who weighed in on the brewing face-off. “For sure it’s between the two of them right now for the non-Trump vote. It’d be great to see a limited debate stage that features the two of them.”
Will Rogers, a former chair of the Polk County GOP in Des Moines, Iowa, said he feels such a fight is destined in part because the Florida governor’s performance has failed to lock down some of the voters who once perceived him as the greatest threat to Trump.
“They just don’t see DeSantis going anywhere,” he said. “And so they’re just kind of like — they’ve almost resolved themselves that he will not be beating Donald Trump and they’re moving on to ‘who’s next that I can really get behind.’”
A former Republican National Committee official who is unaligned with any candidate said Haley “is clearly putting herself in the 'viable alternative to Trump spot,'” adding she “is the only one doing this.”
Another veteran Republican consultant said that while Haley’s second debate was not as strong as her first, “she looked like the only president on stage.”
“She’s killing Biden in polls, she’s seeing momentum in early states,” this person continued. “She’s not the only alternative at this point, but she’s moving that way and I think will continue to see large crowds, success in fundraising and donors pressuring other candidates to begin dropping out. I haven’t made up my mind yet fully either, but I’m a hell of a lot closer.”
On Wednesday, Haley aggressively went after several of her rivals, including DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and 38-year-old businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, considered to be the three top candidates on stage in Trump’s absence. Her most scathing attack was aimed at Ramaswamy, telling him she feels “dumber” every time he speaks — an extension of their heated back-and-forth on foreign policy from the first debate in Milwaukee, though this time, in a discussion about TikTok, Ramaswamy opted not to fire back.
The former governor of South Carolina accused Scott — whom she appointed to the Senate in 2012 — of not accomplishing enough in Washington, and she hit DeSantis over his state policy on fracking in Florida.
Haley was already riding higher from the August contest, which translated into polling bumps. She is in second place in both New Hampshire and her home state while she sits in third in Iowa and nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. All the while, the number of GOP voters who are willing to consider her as an option is rising, and head-to-head polls show her doing well against President Joe Biden.
Haley’s allies painted the Republican primary as shifting toward a one-on-one contest between her and Trump following Wednesday’s debate, though Haley is still bunched up in the polls with several rivals at the moment.
Mark Harris, the lead strategist at the pro-Haley Stand for America super PAC, released a memo after the debate touting the position of the lone woman in the primary “after two strong debates.” A Haley fundraising appeal on Thursday told supporters she has been “FLOODED with a nonstop SURGE OF SUPPORT,” following the debate.
“It’s between Nikki, DeSantis and Trump now as far as everyone is concerned,” a Haley campaign adviser said. “I think DeSantis and his team realizes that also, to be honest.”
The adviser noted the importance of Haley’s next campaign stop in Iowa — her first following the debate, scheduled for Saturday as she seeks to cut into DeSantis’ hold on second place.
DeSantis allies aren’t so concerned. Though the Florida governor has been slipping toward other 2024 rivals in the polls since the spring and summer, several allies and donors said they were pleased with his latest debate performance.
Pete Snyder, a DeSantis donor, said “absolutely not” when asked if he felt the race to take on Trump was boiling down to a Haley-versus-DeSantis showdown.
“I find it all kind of laughable,” he said, adding, “There’s no data out there that suggests that it’s going to be anything but a binary decision on [whether] it’s going to be Donald Trump or not. And the ‘or not’ is Ron DeSantis.”
DeSantis' campaign also rejected the idea that he is in a battle with Haley, citing bursts of support for her, Scott and Ramaswamy that haven’t knocked DeSantis from the No. 2 slot nationally yet.
“This remains a two-person race,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said.
“Ron DeSantis is the only candidate who can stop Donald Trump in Iowa and beyond,” Romeo added, noting that the Trump campaign has recently dumped more money into the state to compete in the caucuses. “But don’t just take our word for it. The continuing actions of the Trump campaign confirm they know what we know — that it’s a choice of Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump for our party’s nomination.”
DeSantis himself responded to NBC News' reporting Friday, saying he wasn't at all concerned with Haley's momentum.
"Anyone that watched that debate the other night, saw, you know, there was one person who acted like a president should act," DeSantis said at a campaign appearance in Long Beach, Calif., Friday afternoon. "And if you look at how they were carping...I thought it was very off-putting and my role there was to deliver the message to the American people about how we reverse this country's decline. ... All the things they're talking about, I've delivered."
And yet, before Wednesday’s debate had even concluded, Trump’s campaign blasted out a press release criticizing “The Real Nikki Haley” on Ukraine, immigration and entitlements.
The Haley campaign took it as a positive development that the front-runner, whom she trails by substantial margins, is now targeting her. The Trump campaign didn’t go after other candidates on Wednesday night, the Haley campaign adviser noted, adding, “he tends to always go after the No. 2 person.”
The Trump campaign agreed that Haley is on the rise but did not express any concerns, considering his large lead.
“Nikki Haley obviously leapfrogged Rob DeSantis,” Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita said, mocking DeSantis’ name in a similar fashion as Trump, “and that says more about him than it does us.”
Not all agreed. A FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll published Thursday found that more Republicans who watched the debate thought DeSantis performed best. And other Republicans said it’s too early to know whether Haley has staying power or is just the latest candidate in this primary to generate buzz that leads nowhere.
Elijah Haahr, a conservative radio host and former Missouri state House speaker, predicted Haley won’t emerge from the fight as the top challenger to Trump.
“There are two ways to beat Trump: Be a better version of Trump or be something totally different,” Haahr said. “DeSantis is trying the first. Tim Scott is trying the second. I don’t think Nikki Haley has decided, and so I don’t put any stock in her future. If she ever hits her ceiling — which isn’t much higher — both sides will turn on her as inauthentic for their lane.”
Haley’s performance on stage Wednesday was up for debate, too.
“I actually thought it was pretty uneven, and not as good as the conventional wisdom,” a 2020 Trump campaign aide said. “This is all academic though, unless someone makes a move in Iowa and gets close to DJT, this is over. I suspect viewership will continue to dwindle because it just doesn’t matter. The GOP nominee in 2024 wasn’t on the stage last night.”
Just 9.3 million people watched Wednesday’s debate, according to the Nielsen ratings service, a steep drop from the 12.8 million who tuned into the debate in Milwaukee last month — and the lowest numbers for any GOP debate since Trump declared his candidacy in 2015.
“I don’t think the debate last night helped anyone,” a Republican unaffiliated with any presidential campaign said. “People were saying she won, but I don’t think it was a good night for her. She clearly was expecting to be the center of all the attacks last night and had definitely practiced a lot of canned counter-attacks. But then she was not getting the attacks she expected, so she was just using all of the attacks anyway.”
There’s also been new scrutiny, beyond the Trump campaign press release, coming with all of the attention. The New York Times’ Carlos Lozada first noticed that, before Haley was throwing haymakers at Ramaswamy on stage, she had given a blurb for his latest book, "Capitalist Punishment," which was released in April.
“He urges us to lift up all Americans, rather than to pit ourselves against one another,” Haley wrote. “His combination of honesty, intellect, and foresight are exactly what we need to overcome our challenges in the years ahead.”
The Haley campaign adviser said any heated exchanges with Ramaswamy were not driven by personal animosity but by sincere policy disagreements, particularly on foreign affairs.
“It’s not Vivek himself,” this person said. “It’s what Vivek is saying.”
But even as Ramaswamy maintains a decent position in the polls, a number of Republicans are sensing a Haley-DeSantis showdown — for second.
“I keep hearing Nikki Haley,” said Rogers, the former GOP chairman in Polk County, Iowa. “But she may be the flavor of the month, too. I just don’t know.”