It appears, finally, that a Republican other than Donald Trump is on the rise in the party’s presidential race.
It may not matter at all given Trump’s steady, commanding lead in polls. But if anyone is going to stop him, Nikki Haley might be the last candidate standing.
Haley has enjoyed a steady rise in the polls, built on impressive debate performances. She’s getting support from an interesting range of groups, including the libertarian-leading Americans for Prosperity and the Democratic megadonor who founded Linkedin. Her experience as Trump’s United Nations ambassador suddenly looms large, with unpredictability in the Middle East that could quickly pull American forces into fighting with Iran and its proxies.
She’s also helped by the fading of her non-Trump competitors. Her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum dropped out. Ron DeSantis can’t regain his traction. And Wednesday night, in what’s sure to be one of the final debates before Iowa’s caucuses in just a few weeks, there will be just four candidates on stage. Haley is sure to be a target, but she’ll also have a chance to shine.
It’s all relative; the overwhelming likelihood is that Trump will be the Republican nominee. He holds whopping leads in early voting states. But those can change quickly. And in an odd way, Trump’s strength may be helping Haley.
Trump’s dominance among Republicans hasn’t changed. But recent polls showing him ahead of President Joe Biden in battleground states have clarified the matter, at least for some Democrats. With time running out, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans must reckon with the idea that he could very well win the White House again. Democrats have welcomed the idea of Trump as the GOP nominee, figuring Biden beat him before and would do so this time, too.
But Biden himself acknowledged this week that if not for the threat of Trump, he might not be running for a second term. His rationale is that he’s the guy who can beat Trump, but if the polls show otherwise, no wonder Democrats are getting panicky.
In just the last couple weeks, several long essays and series in prominent publications have warned that a Trump victory would be the end of democracy. Some of the fears are reasonable, many are overblown. But the point is this — Democrats who once rejoiced at the idea of a Trump-Biden rematch are suddenly terrified.
For Republicans, it’s been a long struggle to argue against Trump in any way that penetrates with his supporters. Some have waited for an exogenous event, such as the criminal charges and lawsuits against him. But those only seem to make the former president stronger with his devotees.
Haley has mostly laid back from criticizing Trump, waiting for the field to winnow and positioning herself to pick up anti-Trump support. DeSantis is still a factor, but it’s hard to see anything other than a smashing win in Iowa propelling him past Trump.
It need not be Wednesday night, but Haley must soon sharpen an argument against Trump. It can include questions about electability, given the court cases. But now that those concerns are somewhat faded, how about this: chaos.
Trump, she can argue, won’t have the focus and follow-through to make even modest policy changes, let alone initiate the dictatorship that Democrats and some media figures fear. He’ll be too busy answering insults and issuing his own on social media. He’ll flit from controversy to controversy.
It’s a tough argument to make to those who love him, but Haley can point out that with just a single four-year term to go, Trump will be too consumed with getting revenge over past slights to engage in the long-term fights needed to reshape the federal government.
A “competence” argument was once DeSantis’ best case against Trump, but the Florida governor’s campaign has been poorly executed. If he could run for president as successfully as he’s governed his state, he might be where Haley is now.
But he’s not, and she is. And if she’s going to make the most of it, she better act soon.
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