It’s time to admit that I underestimated Nikki Haley.
When she began her presidential campaign, she seemed caught betwixt and between: too much of a throwback to pre-Trump conservatism to challenge Ron DeSantis for the leadership of a Trumpified party, but also too entangled with Trump after her service in his administration to offer the fresh start that anti-Trump Republicans would be seeking.
If you wanted someone to attack Trump head-on with relish, Chris Christie was probably your guy. If you wanted someone with pre-Trump Republican politics but without much Trump-era baggage, Tim Scott seemed like the fresher face.
But now Scott is gone, Christie has a modest New Hampshire constituency and not much else, and Haley is having her moment. She’s in second place in New Hampshire, tied with DeSantis in the most recent Des Moines Register-led poll in Iowa, and leading Joe Biden by more than either DeSantis or Trump in national polls. Big donors are fluttering her way, and there’s an emerging media narrative about how she’s proving the DeSantis campaign theory wrong and showing that you can thrive as a Republican without surrendering to Trumpism.
To be clear, I do not think Haley has proved the DeSantis theory wrong. She is not polling anywhere close to the highs DeSantis hit during his stint as the Trump-slayer, and if you use the Register-led poll to game out a future winnowing, you see that her own voters would mostly go to DeSantis if she were to drop out — but if DeSantis drops out, a lot of his voters would go to Trump.
As long as that’s the case, Haley might be able to consolidate 30 or 35 percent of the party, but the path to actually winning would be closed. Which could make her ascent at DeSantis’s expense another study in the political futility of anti-Trump conservatism, its inability to wrestle successfully with the populism that might make Trump the nominee and the president again.
But credit where it’s due: Haley has knocked out Scott, passed Christie and challenged DeSantis by succeeding at a core aspect of presidential politics — presenting yourself as an appealing and charismatic leader who can pick public fights and come out the winner (at least when Vivek Ramaswamy is your foil).
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