Haley-DeSantis Fight to Take Center Stage at Third Republican Debate

Nikki Haley, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, during a break in a Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox Business Network in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2023. Credit - Eric Thayer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Though five candidates will appear onstage, Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate is shaping up to be a two-person showdown.

Since late summer, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been steadily gaining on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, long viewed by many conservatives as the most compelling alternative for those hesitant about former President Donald Trump. Haley appears to be outperforming the governor in New Hampshire, where undeclared voters can participate in the primary and thousands of Democrats recently changed their registration, and she’s closing in on him in national polls; one recent Iowa poll even found them tied for second place. DeSantis on Monday rolled out a coveted endorsement from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, and has been attacking Haley for weeks, largely on foreign policy. Now, the third debate will be one of the last opportunities for Haley or DeSantis to cement themselves as the candidate best positioned to beat Trump.

A pre-debate memo from Betsy Ankney, Haley’s campaign manager, focuses almost exclusively on DeSantis, calling him a “sinking ship” in Iowa and positing that even if he does well there, that’s “as good as it’s going to get for him,” with Haley performing better in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The campaign also notes that, according to DeSantis’ own polling, the plurality of his voters would back Haley if he were to drop out.

“Donald Trump is the frontrunner in this primary,” Betsy Ankney writes. “The question has always been who will emerge as the strongest alternative to him, with the talent, resources, and pathway to go the distance. At the beginning of the year, most pundits claimed it was Ron DeSantis. And then America met Ron DeSantis.”

The DeSantis team’s own pre-debate memo rejects the Haley camp’s framing.

“Simply put, without Ron DeSantis in this primary, Trump is the Republican nominee,” write three top DeSantis strategists. “Nikki Haley and others are, at best, simply playing the role of spoiler—exponentially increasing the odds of a Trump nomination. Every dollar the Pro-Haley community collects or spends should also be listed as an ‘in-kind’ contribution on Trump’s campaign FEC reports.”

Both camps expect Wednesday’s debate to be foreign policy-centered, the culmination of weeks of attacks between the two following the beginning of the war in Israel. The rivalry picked up In mid-October, when Haley, a former ambassador to the United Nations, criticized DeSantis for describing all Gazans as antisemitic by emphasizing the need to “separate civilians from terrorists.” The DeSantis camp quickly interpreted her statement as Haley expressing support for the U.S. accepting refugees from Gaza, a policy she never backed.

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While the conflict in the Middle East will feature prominently in the debateRepublican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel has said the candidates will reaffirm the party’s “unwavering support of Israel”—Haley and DeSantis may also touch on recent dueling attack ads about the candidates’ supposed ties to China. A recent Haley spot on the subject accused DeSantis of “lying because he’s losing.” Days later, pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down released an ad hitting back. Claims in both videos have been called into question by independent fact-checkers.

During the debate, Haley is expected to contrast her more hawkish views on Israel and Ukraine with the more isolationist views of the Florida governor and another competitor, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.  But where Haley’s allies view her experience as a strength, the DeSantis camp thinks voters prefer his ideology. “While Haley is strongest among ‘moderate and left-of-center Republicans,’ she has a ballot ceiling that will not allow her to appeal to the much larger ‘America First’ base of the party,” the DeSantis memo reads.

DeSantis’ campaign is arguing that Haley is a distraction from the real fight for the GOP nomination between the Florida Governor and the former President.

“This is a two-man race,” DeSantis Press Secretary Bryan Griffin wrote in a statement. “Team Trump knows it—that's why they're spending over $1 million this week alone to attack DeSantis in Iowa despite proclaiming the primary was 'over' in August. And the other candidates know it, too. With all the attacks and attention focused on DeSantis, we know we are over the target and primed to win this nomination."

Griffin is right that Trumpworld is piling on. Numerous recent press releases from the former President’s campaign gleefully slam the Florida governor by highlighting his dynamic with Haley, including her rise to second place in some polls, the ad wars, and her recent comments on the speculation that DeSantis wears lifts to appear taller.

“Life must be miserable for Ron DeSanctimonious when even Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley is dunking on him for wearing high heels,” Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung wrote.

Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com.