GOP challengers running out of time to catch Trump

Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are running out of time to catch former President Trump in the GOP primary.

The next few weeks will be critical for both GOP presidential candidates, who each trail Trump by a wide margin in swing state and national polls.

Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has narrowed the gap with Trump in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 23. But she still trails him by double digits.

DeSantis, the Florida governor, is perhaps in an even tougher spot. He has made Iowa a critical state for his campaign, but polls suggest he is in a battle for second place with Haley in Iowa. Both are well behind Trump, who has sought to leave no doubt in the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses.

There are multiple debates and back-to-back town halls that could allow Haley or DeSantis to close the gap. But if neither can make significant progress in that window, it could be curtains.

“The campaigns literally hinge on the next three weeks, each of them,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist.

“For each of them, it’s going to be important to try and break through, either with a win or a very strong second that gives them the momentum to continue on beyond Iowa and New Hampshire,” Merrill said of Haley and DeSantis.

Strategists are skeptical about whether a non-Trump candidate has a chance at beating the former president outright in the key early states on this month’s schedule.

But they argue there’s still time — as well as an urgent need — for Haley and DeSantis to seize some momentum in the lead-up to Iowa’s GOP caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation Republican primary.

“This is always the decisive month in presidential politics. You either win Iowa or New Hampshire, or you go home,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant.

Polling averages show Trump leading with 51.6 percent in Iowa, followed by DeSantis and Haley at 18 and 17.1 percent, respectively.

In New Hampshire, the polling average puts Haley at 26.7 percent, ahead of DeSantis’s 8.3 percent — but still behind Trump’s 43.7 percent.

The voting contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, together with the first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina in February, may decide the GOP presidential race by early March.

The margins between first, second and third place in those states could signal which candidates have enough wind in their sails to continue toward Super Tuesday in March. Failing to secure a competitive finish in the first three races could sound alarms that it’s time for certain candidates to step out.

If DeSantis doesn’t finish in a strong second place in Iowa, it would be “tough” to go on to New Hampshire, where Haley appears to have an edge, argued Iowa-based Republican strategist Jimmy Centers. 

Haley, on the other hand, may also need to “make an assessment” after New Hampshire about whether it’s worth it to keep campaigning in the February primary of her home state of South Carolina in New Hampshire, Centers said.

“If former President Trump is able to garner north of 50 percent here in Iowa, and then put together a large win in New Hampshire as well, it’s a tough, tough march towards South Carolina” for his rivals, Centers said.

Conant underscored that even a distant second-place finish for DeSantis in Iowa would make it hard for the campaign to find a path forward.

Either way, it’s “hard to see a scenario” where Trump wins the first two states and goes on to lose big come Super Tuesday, Conant argued. But if Haley or DeSantis can beat Trump in either of the January contests, it could become a different ballgame.

“To really reshape the race, they need to beat him in one of the first few states. It seems unlikely that either one of them is going to gain the momentum they need by losing to Trump,” Conant said. “If they don’t beat him in the early states, it doesn’t get any easier in the later states.”

That’s why the busy January schedule in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire is so important for both the Florida governor and former South Carolina governor, observers said.

On Thursday, DeSantis and Haley are set to take part in separate town hall events hosted by CNN in Des Moines, Iowa, airing back-to-back. Next week, Fox News will host Haley on Jan. 8 and DeSantis on Jan. 9 for two more town halls in the Hawkeye State.

On Jan. 10, just five days before the Iowa caucuses, CNN plans to host a Republican presidential debate in the state.

Haley and DeSantis qualified for the CNN debate, while fellow candidates Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy, who made the RNC’s fourth debate stage last month, didn’t make the cut. Trump has qualified but is skipping the event — so far, passing on all the party’s this cycle — and will instead participate in a Fox News town hall as counterprogramming.

In New Hampshire, ABC is planning a Jan. 18 debate, and CNN has set another for Jan. 21. Alongside the crowded calendar of high-profile debates and town halls, Trump’s rivals continue to crisscross the early states for their events.

“It’s make-or-break these next couple of weeks,” said Centers, the Iowa strategist, adding that “anything’s possible” at this point, especially given the looming debates.

The lineup of events is “going to have a chance to either create momentum or halt momentum,” said Merrill, the Republican strategist from Granite State. 

As they head toward on-air showdowns this month, Haley and DeSantis have been attacking each other, but strategists say they’ll also have to focus in their upcoming debates and town halls on making their case against the front-runner.

That’s been complicated to accomplish as the former president campaigns as a de facto incumbent amid multiple legal battles and criminal indictments, which he’s largely painted as political attacks against him, often prompting his competitors to come to his defense. 

Last month, Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled to disqualify Trump from appearing on the state’s 2024 Republican primary ballot over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — and his GOP rivals largely condemned the move. 

“Any other candidate in any other race: if your opponent gets indicted, you use that against them, quite obviously. Not only have they not done that, they’ve used the same language and rhetoric Trump has,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye of the former president’s rivals.

Heye argued Haley and DeSantis are running “a strategy of hope,” waiting in the wings for the former president to be undercut by his legal battles — but contended they’ve “not done anything to make that happen on their own.”

Trump notably won New Hampshire and lost Iowa in the 2016 presidential primaries, but he appears to be growing stronger in the Hawkeye State this time around. 

“One way or another, you’ve got to make a convincing case that you deserve to be the last non-Trump candidate standing. That you’ve got the momentum, the numbers, the showing on the ground, the financial wherewithal to go on beyond Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Merrill.

“And it is very difficult for me to see a scenario where, the day after New Hampshire, both Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are still in this thing heading to South Carolina.”

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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