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GOP Debate: The Contender
Nikki Haley has turned her fortunes around through a solid debate performance that readjusted her trajectory and her campaign strategy.
This is my fifth and final piece in a series of Daily Saucer takes on the current crop of GOP candidates leading up to tonight’s presidential debate.
I had initially written off Nikki Haley back in May. After watching her speech at CPAC, I was not impressed. What I saw last spring was a former rising star pandering to populists in hopes of finding relevancy in a new Trumpian world. And so, I put her out of mind.
That all changed last debate.
The old Nikki Haley came alive on that debate stage. She was vivacious and unapologetic. She didn’t shy away from dealing with hard truths. And she was able to differentiate herself from and levy attacks on Trump, and his surrogate Ramaswamy, without setting her hair on fire in an anti-Trump rage.
She offered a plausible path forward for pro-life efforts. She demonstrated maturity and knowledge in foreign affairs. She was able to present herself as not only a fighter, but as a likable fighter. She rebuked this Trumpian idea, which Ramaswamy put on full display, that you have to be an a**hole to be a fighter.
With one incredible performance, Nikki Haley jumped from beyond my consideration to the very top of my list. And, her performance came along with a bump in the polls that has put her shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of DeSantis and propelled her beyond the single digits where Pence and others continue to stew.
And this was done through a recalibration of Haley’s campaign strategy. She, more than any other candidate, discovered a hard truth and acted on it. Haley recognized that the GOP electorate is willing to consider someone other than Trump, but only if that someone differentiates themselves from Trump.
Haley took a long, hard look at the struggles DeSantis has had, and realized that voters aren’t interested in Trump lite or watered-down MAGA. Voters want to be presented with an actual choice. They want a contender. And that’s what she presented to viewers of the first GOP debate.
But now she finds herself in a precarious position. Does she try for another break-out performance tonight, in hopes of adding further energy to her seemingly upward trajectory, or does she play it safe and hope others damage themselves while while maintaining her own steady course?
In a normal race, the safe course might be the later one. She has secured enough support to create a solid foundation to build on and has established a stream of donations that will see her campaign through the coming months. With so many candidates on stage, many of whom need big performances to keep their campaigns alive, it would be the prudential path for Haley to keep her powder dry, avoid losing voters by keeping herself from getting dragged into the melee, and save her best soundbites for when there are only three or four remaining candidates to argue with.
But this is not a normal race. Whichever Republican candidate becomes the David to Trump’s Goliath will need time to gather their polished stones and swing their sling. Consolidation of the field is a necessity, and the sooner the better.
If Nikki Haley can repeat her performance from the last debate, she could very well position herself to rise above the other non-Trump candidates in the polling and present herself as the established contender against Trump. Another strong debate could propel her to the 20s or even the 30s, especially in the key early races, in the coming month. If she does that, she could very well force other candidates to concede before the first contests are even held.
I, for one, hope she doesn’t choose the safe route. Swing away, Nikki. Swing away.
The Daily Saucer is our place for freelance contributors and editorial staff to offer short takes on the news cycle, quick observations on the issues, and brief thoughts on broader topics. The views offered in this space reflect only the personal views of the authors.