Haley seeks bump in next debate as her campaign looks to build momentum

Nikki Haley is facing a critical moment for her presidential campaign with the second GOP debate in California this month.

Polling has indicated Haley saw a bump after a strong performance at last month’s event in Milwaukee, and her campaign has touted its “post-debate momentum.”

But the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador still faces an uphill battle as she jostles with her GOP rivals in a crowded field long led by former President Trump, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis locked in second in most polls — making her showing at the upcoming second debate all the more important.

Republican strategist Rina Shah said that Haley “without a doubt” has a chance to move up in the GOP field and even knock DeSantis out of his second-place status, “especially after her performance in that first debate.”

But the only female candidate on the GOP stage is “going to have to follow it up with another good performance, another rock-solid performance” at the second debate Sept. 27 to make sure that momentum keeps building, Shah said.

Haley was the first major Republican candidate to jump into the primary race alongside the former president, launching her bid in February. She’s pitched herself as a new generation of GOP leadership, touting her work as governor and her experience in the U.N. She quipped at the first debate that “if you want something done, ask a woman.”

Haley on the debate stage also torched entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — who had reached third place in some polls before the debate — over his foreign policy experience and clashed with with former Vice President Mike Pence’s stance on a federal abortion ban.

Polling afterward revealed that GOP voters thought Haley was among the top performers of the night.

“Two weeks after the first debate in Milwaukee, it’s clear that momentum is with Nikki Haley,” campaign manager Betsy Ankney said in a new memo, touting Haley’s progress in polls.

A Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey found that the share of Republican primary voters who said they were considering voting for Haley jumped from 29 percent before the debate to 46 percent after they watched it, the biggest improvement of any of the candidates on stage.

Tony Fabrizio, the lead pollster for Trump’s last two presidential campaigns, said in a memo reported this week by Axios that Haley has “surged” in Iowa polls after the debate, while DeSantis has “flatlined.”

The memo found Haley in third place in Iowa with 10 percent, compared to Ramaswamy’s 7 percent, DeSantis’s 18 percent and Trump’s 44 percent. In a New Hampshire survey from Fabrizio, Haley was tied with Ramaswamy for third with 9 percent each, behind DeSantis’s 11 percent and Trump’s 48 percent.

But despite Haley’s progress in the polls after the debate, the numbers show that she and the rest of the White House hopefuls still lag far behind Trump.

Many consider the field to be in a race for second place, hoping GOP support eventually consolidates behind one of Trump’s rival candidates to make the contest more competitive.

“For Haley and other second-tier candidates, the debates are an opportunity to attempt to jump into the top tier with DeSantis and Trump,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican strategist.

Sayfie said he hasn’t seen evidence that anyone other than DeSantis will be in that top tier with Trump come 2024, but as the Florida governor’s polling numbers dip, other strategists suggest there’s an avenue for Haley to move up.

“I wouldn’t believe much of this polling that’s out there entirely about DeSantis being a firm second place. I think anyone could knock him out of that any time,” Shah said.

A lot can change in the coming months as the 2024 cycle warms up and approaches the first caucuses early next year, GOP strategist Saul Anuzis said.

“I think that anything is still possible,” Anuzis said. “I think [Haley’s] very credible. She’s one of the people who got a bump from the debate, and most of the others can’t say that. So I think that’s a huge advantage to her.”

For the second debate, in Simi Valley, Calif., strategists say Haley needs to maintain the level of calm and collectedness that boosted her presence in Milwaukee, and to lean into her measured stances on issues including abortion and foreign policy.

“Coming off her momentum of the last debate, I think that’s why it’s going to be incumbent upon her to perform well again. Because it’s like once you give the audience a taste, they want to see what else is there. So she’s going to have to follow up,” Shah said.

Anuzis added that Haley needs to stay in the top four or five candidates as the leading candidates solidify and the field narrows in the coming months.

Some have said Haley appeared to be reaching for the general electorate during the first debate, rather than just GOP primary voters — and Shah said that strategy indicates Haley “understands the assignment” of beating Biden next year.

In a new CNN poll, Haley was the only GOP presidential candidate who led President Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup, with 49 percent to Biden’s 43 percent.

No other Republican candidate — including Ramaswamy, DeSantis and Trump — led by more than a 2-point margin in a contest against Biden.

Haley has dismissed suggestions that she’s running in the GOP presidential race to ultimately become Trump’s vice presidential pick, saying instead that she’s “doing this to win it.”

“I don’t believe Haley is running for VP anymore. I think she understands that this could be a reality for her. And she’s up to the task,” Shah said.

She referenced Haley’s tense exchanges with fellow candidates during the debate last month.

“To call out your colleague on a stage like that shows you’re not there to play. It shows you’re there to actually deliver a death blow. She wants to eliminate people from that stage,” Shah said.

The second debate is slated for Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, hosted by Fox hosts Stuart Varney and Dana Perino, with Univision’s Ilia Calderón. It is set to air on Fox Business and in Spanish on Univision.

Haley has had a busy schedule on the campaign trail with stops this week in New Hampshire and her state of South Carolina in the lead-up to the looming debate later this month.

“While other campaigns have had multiple reboots and excessive campaign and super PAC spending, our campaign is lean and mean and fighting for every inch. Candidates and campaigns matter, and Nikki and our entire operation are focused on the mission and will get the job done,” her campaign manager said in the recent memo.

Jim Merrill, a veteran Republican consultant in New Hampshire, said he thinks the first debate “clearly helped seal some deals” for Haley among GOP voters in his state and elsewhere.

“She’s got room to grow. And I think the numbers bear out that she’s got opportunity to grow,” Merrill said, though he noted that “there’s a long way to go for anybody to catch Trump” and that DeSantis has room to grow, too. “I think the question for her now is: where does she go from here?”

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