CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Nikki Haley stayed until the last of her admirers got to shake her hand, so long that the Brosh Chapel staff began hurriedly stacking chairs around her. This was a funeral home, after all, and they had a late-afternoon service to prepare for.
If mortuaries generally make poor settings for campaign events — easily turned into metaphors for any candidate appearing there — the Haley campaign’s decision to hold one recently at such a place would seem to be the exception.
It isn’t just that Haley has navigated past the prognostications of her political death. It’s that the timing of her rise — with several rivals fading, one newly out, and with increasingly urgent calls for a consolidation of the primary field — is already reshaping the GOP’s longshot undercard race to overtake Donald Trump.
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“She’s breaking through at the right moment,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist. “Everything else has been ridiculous preseason coverage, like baseball teams at summer training … I think it all starts now.”
Other GOP contenders had their moments in the spotlight. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, was an instant frontrunner of the field of Trump alternatives, before backsliding. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was once the talk of the donor class, while biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy became a sensation after the first debate.
But Haley, sparked by two widely-praised debate performances and a turn in the primary to international affairs — a subject of authority for the former U.N. ambassador — may have better timing than any of those candidates. Her ascent, while still only a handful of points nationally, comes amid escalating anxiety within the GOP about the primary field’s failure to winnow. In recent weeks, Republican politicians, pundits and at least one newspaper editorial board have called for most of the remaining candidates to drop out and consolidate around Haley, the former South Carolina governor. On Wednesday, former U.S. senator and New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg became the latest to issue a Haley endorsement.
“Our party needs someone who can win and lead,” Gregg wrote in the New Hampshire Union Leader. “Nikki Haley is that person.”
DeSantis has been forced to turn his focus to attacking Haley in an effort to blunt her momentum. And after picking up supporters during the first two primary debates, Haley is likely to have even fewer candidates to share the spotlight with during the next one. On Saturday, former Vice President Mike Pence suspended his campaign.
“It’s coming at a great time for her,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. “Sometimes the direction of movement is as important as the absolute level of standing — and she’s going up, while the other candidates are either going down or remaining flat.”
Despite Trump still leading the rest of the field by as many as 50 points nationally and 30 points in the early states, Haley is now the main reason DeSantis can no longer declare the primary a “two-man race.” She has closed in on DeSantis, surpassing him in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and is slowly gaining on him in Iowa, despite the Florida governor barnstorming the state throughout the summer and investing significantly more there than Haley.
Since the first debate, Haley has caught fire with New Hampshire voters, rocketing from 3 percent in August to as high as 19 percent recently and solidly in second place.
“The rise is real,” Ayres said. “It reflects her debate performance in the first two debates, but also her performance on the stump.”
Haley, to be sure, isn’t filling stadiums. Campaigning recently in Iowa, her events look much like they did throughout the spring and summer — with an advance team ensuring every seat was filled, “Pick Nikki” signs lining the walls and an open-ended question-and-answer portion at the end of her stump speech. She is largely running the same type of campaign she has from the start.
But there are signs on the trail that Haley is now a critical factor in the race, evident not only in the supporters who show up for her, but in the opponents who once ignored her. At consecutive town halls last weekend in Iowa, the first questions Haley faced were from people challenging her record.
At the funeral home in Cedar Rapids that doubled as a broader event venue, a woman seated on the front row grilled Haley about soliciting Chinese business to South Carolina while she was governor. At Central College in Pella the next day, a woman fumbling with notecards asked Haley about her support in 2015 for Middle East refugee resettlement and whether she stood by it. Both lines of questioning were similar to attacks DeSantis and his allies have promoted.
Explaining that she opposed Syrian refugee resettlement as governor, and also opposes refugees coming from Gaza to the United States, Haley became irritated.
“God bless Ron DeSantis because he continues to try and bring up this refugee situation,” she told the woman, later adding that it’s “what happens when a campaign starts to spiral out.”
Asked which candidates his members seem most excited for, Tim Striley, chair of the Clinton County, Iowa Republican Party, said, “Well, we just had the record crowd for Nikki Haley.”
He noted candidates are still setting up future visits to Clinton County, but that Haley’s crowd of 400 has been the largest to date, outside of a Trump event his local party jointly held with a neighboring county GOP.
Haley is winning over at least some of those voters, many of whom said they had given Haley’s candidacy little thought until they watched her on stage in August.
“I wasn’t really for her until that first debate,” said Patricia Inman, who had come from Ottumwa, Iowa, to see Haley. “And that first debate drew me in, wanting to see her and actually look into her and see what she had to offer.”
There is, in this new phase of Haley’s campaign, an acknowledgment of the vast challenges she is confronting. Trump is still dominating the race.
Newly relevant in the campaign, Haley’s recent surge could end. Wrangling an infant and small child before Haley’s Pella event, Meghan Thompsen said she feared the GOP still isn’t ready to choose a female nominee.
And then there is the simple math of the primary, with the prospect that Trump’s rivals, as they did in 2016, will once again divide the non-Trump vote, clearing his path to the nomination.
“There are still too many of them, and they’ll all go down with the ship,” said Tom Thompsen, Meghan Thompsen’s husband, as he waited in line to get a photo of Haley with their infant.
But even if he doubted it would amount to much, Haley had won Thompson’s vote. He said, “It needs to be her.”
Source : Politico