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Nikki Haley had heard worse than the snipes from one of the three men standing to her left on stage Wednesday night in Miami. As a candidate for Governor of South Carolina in 2010, she was attacked with anti-Indian American slurs. Three years later, the state party chairman said she should go “back to wherever the hell she came from,” ignoring that she was born in South Carolina’s Bamberg County Hospital. When she was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Secretary of State allegedly called her sexist slurs that begin with a B and a C. To her face.
But when the presidential candidate had her daughter’s social media usage invoked during the third debate among the second-tier contenders, Haley stood on the verge of boiling over. “Leave my daughter out of your voice,” Haley said with a cool edge as tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy brought up Rena Haley’s TikTok. “You’re just scum,” she added as her daughter watched from the room.
With her eyes cast toward the blazing stage lights overhead in Miami, you could see Haley push reset and perhaps remind herself that combativeness is way too easily clothed as rage on female candidates. That clear-eyed ownership of her space in the current Republican campaign has served her well to this point. She is the only candidate on the rise in national polls, early state polls, and her standing among donors. Although ex-President Donald Trump remains leaps ahead of her, Haley is quickly becoming a plausible chief rival and the best shot for Republicans to find an off-ramp to his third nomination.
“We can’t win the fights of the 21st century with politicians from the 20th century. We have to move forward,” Haley said during her closing statement. It was the distillation of her campaign thesis, one that hinges on an appetite among Republican voters for a former state executive and high-stakes diplomat over a former President who is on trial in four jurisdictions. Objectively, that formulation makes a ton of sense. But ask Jon Huntsman, a former Utah Governor and the ex-Ambassador to China and Singapore, about the two delegates he earned during his 2012 campaign for the White House.
On stage, Haley understood the rules. She has a hawkish instinct on national security, giving her a leg up during a debate that toured the globe’s crises in Ukraine and Israel as well as threats from the southern border and China. She’s a pragmatic realist when it comes to social issues, smartly reasoning that Congress passing a federal abortion ban is as realistic as finding the Loch Ness Monster. And she has some very talented advisers in lead-off states of Iowa and New Hampshire guiding her, plus her home-state advantage in South Carolina, where she can count just one loss at the ballot in a 20-year career.
But it has to be said: Haley is still far from a threat to Trump, her policy-based antithesis who once again skipped the debate stage altogether. About 20 minutes away from the Miami theater, the former President was staging his own production that was chock full of victimhood and grievance, promising the GOP base once again a fanciful agenda. Before Trump took the stage in Hialeah, Fla., a UFC fighter led the crowd in a chant of “Let’s Go, Brandon,” a not-terribly-clever intonation of an anti-Joe Biden rallying cry. It was showmanship, not statecraft.
Being a former President has its advantages, and fundraising is chief among them. Trump raised more than $24 million in the three-months leading into October, and $17 million during the quarter before that. He finished the period with $37 million in the bank, $20 million ahead of the $12 million in the pockets of Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis.
That’s right: DeSantis remains in the race, even if his standing among Republicans has faded greatly since the start of the year. Some rocky terrain and Trump’s withering attacks have left the man dubbed “Ron DeSanctimonious” slightly off balance heading into the starting line. Even so, the closest he ever crept to overtaking Trump was a 15-point deficit, meaning his threat was never exactly perilous.
Haley, meanwhile, may be improving, but she’s a solid 50 points behind Trump. And while emerging as the winner of the Not-Trump primary matters for media coverage, the Republicans rules don’t reward second place. That means either she starts to chart a way to overtake Trump in less than 100 days or she needs to convince backers of folks like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to pivot to her camp. Even so, it’s still tough odds. Trump’s hold on the party has proven durable enough that not even the prospect of voting for a jailed nominee is sufficient to dent his support.
“I’ll say this about Donald Trump: Anybody who is going to be spending the next year and a half of their life focusing on keeping themselves out of jail in courtrooms cannot lead this party or this country,” Christie said dryly. “It needs to be said plainly.”
Which is why Haley has been so strategic in picking her spots in a critique of her former boss. “He was the right President at the right time. He’s not the right president now,” she said of Trump, for whom she served as his representative to the U.N.
Her smart late rise, however, has left her a prime target for rivals who lack Trump to bash on stages.
“Do you want a leader from a different generation that is going to put this country first? Or do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” Ramaswamy said before taking a mocking tone toward not just Haley but DeSantis’ choice of footwear. “In this case, we’ve got two of them on-stage tonight.”
Haley, turning to her go-to rejoinder, missed zero beats. “They’re five-inch heels. I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” she said. “I wear heels. They’re not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.”
Asked later about the Ramaswamy aggression, Haley was justifiably dismissive. “Look, I’m a mom. The second that you start saying something about my 25-year-old daughter, I’m going to get my back up,” she said in the spin room. “I don’t even give him the time of day.”
It may be time, though, for serious-minded Republicans to give her that courtesy if they want to dodge a third nomination of Trump.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org