Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is coming out of Wednesday night’s debate with a fresh burst of momentum, but members of the party say she still faces a steep hill in toppling former President Trump.
Haley’s Wednesday night performance in Simi Valley, Calif., was lauded by Republicans after she targeted several of her contenders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.).
Trump took notice, as well. His campaign hit her during the event, and the former president himself lashed out at her Friday on social media, in what some say is an indication she’s being viewed as a more formidable opponent than before.
“Make no mistake, it is a very steep mountain to climb, but she is on her way,” said Republican strategist Matthew Bartlett.
“Anything is possible in presidential politics in American politics,” he added. “I’m certainly not saying that it is likely but you know, more people absolutely know Donald Trump than know Nikki Haley. And people in Iowa and New Hampshire seem to be getting to know her, and they seem to be liking her, and I think that’s only going to increase as they get closer to voting time.”
Haley joined six other contenders at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for the second GOP debate. The event was largely criticized as irrelevant and pointless, and many analysts said it did little to move the needle on a primary that has been dominated by Trump.
Yet some analysts and Republicans saw the night as another bright spot for Haley, who didn’t shy away from calling out some of her opponents on policy issues or political records.
Responding to Ramaswamy’s defense over using the TikTok app after he previously expressed misgivings over it, Haley said, “This is infuriating because TikTok is one of the most dangerous social media apps that we could have. And … honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say.”
She notably hit Scott, a fellow South Carolinian, over his record in the Senate, asking: “12 years — where have you been?” It was a move that turned heads, given the two had largely avoided hitting each other during the primary.
Although much of her firepower was aimed at Trump’s primary rivals, Haley also took a jab at the former president over his handling of China.
“This is where President Trump went wrong,” she said. “He focused on trade with China. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were buying up our farmland. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were killing Americans.”
In a sign of her strong performance, Haley drew the attention of the former president and his campaign. During the debate, the Trump campaign released an email targeting the former U.N. ambassador on her positions like Ukraine and immigration, in addition to pointing to an interview she did in 2012 where she said Hillary Clinton inspired her to run for office.
But Trump took it a step further Friday, hitting her in a Truth Social post.
“MAGA, or I, will never go for Birdbrain Nikki Haley. No loyalty, plenty of lies!” Trump wrote, attacking her for previous comments she made saying she wouldn’t run against the former president in 2024.
Haley welcomed the attack on X, responding with: “Love this. It means we are in 2nd and moving up fast. Bring it!”
The former South Carolina governor said the Trump campaign took a further jab at her over the weekend.
“After a day of campaigning, this is the message waiting for me outside my hotel room…#PrettyPatheticTryAgain #YouJustMadeMyCaseForMe,” Haley wrote in a post on X on Sunday. The post included a picture of bird feed and a bird cage, with a sign attached to the cage reading, “From: Trump campaign.”
Marc Caputo, a journalist at The Messenger, confirmed in a post on X that it was done by the Trump campaign. The Hill has reached out to the Trump campaign for comment.
Some Republicans see Trump’s decision to go after Haley as a nod to the fact she’s being viewed as a serious threat while acknowledging she still needs to narrow the gap against DeSantis in some polling.
“I think she’s still got a ways to go on the polling to pass DeSantis. He still has a pretty relatively decent lead,” said GOP strategist Keith Naughton.
“The fact that Trump started attacking Haley is an indication that he thinks that she’s a more serious contender. I mean, that’s kind of your gauge about, I think, where people in the Republican Party could think the race is,” he added.
While RealClearPolitics’s polling averages of surveys in New Hampshire and South Carolina have Haley placed in second behind Trump, its average of Iowa surveys has her in third behind Trump and DeSantis.
Haley, DeSantis and all the other Republican presidential candidates trail Trump by double digits in polling averages of all three early states, underscoring the long-standing problem they face in their effort to claim the GOP nomination.
But Haley’s campaign believes they can channel her Wednesday night performance to further propel her into the 2024 GOP primary.
“Nikki is the candidate with momentum. Debates are an opportunity for millions of Americans to meet Nikki, and they like what they hear. She had another winning debate performance and we’re turning that into momentum on the ground,” said Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas, who also pointed to Haley’s showing in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Haley’s supporters see her as a candidate galvanizing the GOP electorate.
“They’re excited for a new generational leader that they see in Nikki and it’s not just the Trump alternative of, ‘Oh, well, I guess we have a chance over here.’ It’s, ‘No, this is the alternative, and we’re gonna come out and support her,'” said Emily Sukup Schmitt, general counsel and chief administrative officer at Sukup Manufacturing Co., who’s a supporter of Haley in Iowa.
Yet DeSantis is still generally viewed as Trump’s strongest rival. Although the Florida governor’s performance drew mixed reviews Wednesday night, he garnered attention for stepping up his attacks on Trump, criticizing the former president for not being on the debate stage and for criticizing DeSantis over his signing of a six-week abortion ban in Florida.
“Ron DeSantis won the debate because he was the only candidate on stage who talked about his vision for the country as our next president and detailed his proven record that showed voters he can get the job done,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement.
Some of DeSantis’s supporters said they liked what they saw from the governor during the second debate.
“Gov. DeSantis rose above it all just like he did in the first debate, I thought, and showed his leadership several times when he kind of tried to calm others down, including the moderators,” said Roy Bailey, a former co-chairman of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign’s finance committee who is backing DeSantis in 2024.
“And then at the end, I loved where he really took the lead amongst seven people and said, ‘No, we’re not going to answer that question — that’s insulting to us,'” he added, referring to a moment near the end of the debate when the contenders rejected the question of whom they thought should be kicked out of the primary.
In a nod to the fact that both candidates are seriously being viewed as the potential alternative to Trump, members from the Haley and DeSantis campaigns will be speaking to the American Opportunity Alliance, a high-profile donor group, next month in Texas, where both camps will pitch why donors should be supporting their respective candidates. The news was first reported by NBC and later confirmed to The Hill by the DeSantis campaign.
It’s a signal that some Republicans are looking to narrow the field quickly amid concerns that multiple candidates in the primary could give Trump another opening to win the GOP primary. While the urgency is becoming apparent, the question of when and how the field slims down isn’t quite as clear-cut.
“It’s becoming real to people and to voters, and they need to make some real hard decisions here. Outside of that, everything is going to have to line up in order for somebody to coalesce,” said Bartlett.
Updated: 9:36 p.m. ET