Haley’s debate performance captivates GOP hoping to regain ground

Nikki Haley’s strong debate performance is piquing interest among voters and GOP officials hoping to attract women back into the party.  

The only woman running for the Republican nomination, Haley took down Vivek Ramaswamy on foreign policy and dismissed former Vice President Mike Pence’s call for an abortion ban at the federal level. She also appeared to take aim at whether former President Trump could beat President Biden and called him out for adding “$8 trillion to our debt.” 

While her debate performance underscored her positioning as the adult in the room and crystallized her take on abortion — likely a deciding issue in 2024 — what’s unclear is whether it is enough to break through in a Republican primary electorate dominated by Trump. 

Some note that Haley appeared to be employing a general election strategy at Wednesday’s debate when she needed to figure out a way to win over primary voters.

“She could be positioning herself as a better general election candidate, but it’s still going to be hard for her to win the primary with that sort of approach,” said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.  

The latest Real Clear Politics poll average shows Haley polling at 3.2 percent, behind Pence’s 4 percent, Ramaswamy’s 7.2 percent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s 14.3 percent and Trump’s 55.4 percent.  

However, Haley’s team and others in the GOP say she is riding a wave of post-debate momentum.   

“Nikki Haley shined on the debate stage. She was tough and honest, which is exactly what the American people need,” said Annie Dickerson, a veteran GOP fundraiser and founder of Winning for Women Action Fund, which is dedicated to electing GOP women. “She introduced voters to her vision for a strong and proud America, and it’s resonating.”  

In a statement to The Hill, Haley’s campaign said the response to her debate performance has been “overwhelming.”  

“Voters saw Nikki Haley’s toughness and readiness to be president in last night’s debate,” said Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas.  

Haley saw the most improvement from voters of all the candidates after the debate, according to a Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey. Before the debate, 29 percent of Republican primary voters who watched the debate said they planned to vote for her. After the debate, that number jumped to 46 percent.  

Website traffic to Haley’s campaign surged 10 times the normal amount after the debate, and YouTube viewership and following more than doubled in the hours after the debate. According to Fox News, Haley was the second most Googled candidate after the debate, following Ramaswamy.  

Haley’s allies have also touted an internal poll commissioned by the pro-DeSantis super PAC that showed Haley rising to third place at 11 percent support. She followed DeSantis at 21 percent support and Trump at 41 percent.  

Additionally, her allies are pointing to a poll from the left-leaning firm Navigator Research showing 45 percent of independent and independent-leaning voters in Wisconsin said Haley won the debate, while another 42 percent picked Haley when asked: “Who seems like they most care about people like you?”  

“Overall, the data clearly shows that while Haley’s candidacy is gaining support amongst Republican primary voters, her ability to court Independents in battleground states like Wisconsin make her a prime candidate to take on Joe Biden next fall,” wrote Mark Harris, the lead strategist for the pro-Haley super PAC SFA Fund Inc., in a Friday memo.  

This data could easily be attributed to the sugar-like high many candidates experience following a nationally televised debate. After all, Wednesday’s debate was watched by a whopping 12.8 million viewers.  

But Haley’s allies say this is the beginning of “a new phase of the campaign.” 

“We have long believed that the campaign really kicked off for Nikki in August, when the first debate took place in Milwaukee, and Americans finally had an opportunity to see what we already know — she is the best candidate to beat Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” read the memo from SFA Fund Inc.  

Officials emphasized the significance of having a woman on the debate stage as the party looks to recruit more female candidates and attract more female voters. 

“As an organization that’s our goal, is to make it possible for more women to be running for federal office, and seeing her up there and just seeing what a great job she did obviously is very encouraging and inspiring for women across the country,” said Tina Ramirez, spokesperson for the Republican women’s group Maggie’s List.  

“I understand that being a female politician still presents special challenges, so she’s been dealing with a stage full of men. I’ve been there myself,” she continued.  

Maggie’s List is not endorsing a candidate in the Republican presidential primary.  

The Republicans who have praised Haley note her stances on various issues, like abortion.  

Haley told Pence to “not make women feel like they have to decide on this issue” after Pence called for a 15-week federal ban on the procedure.  

“I think Nikki is going to get a second look from some people based on some stuff she said tonight on abortion,” said Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump adviser, on Fox News’s post-debate coverage. “I’m very pro-life, but I like what she said — that you don’t demonize or punish women. That’s important.” 

Haley’s allies argue she is better situated to make the party’s case for abortion than her presidential rivals.  

“She’s a wife, she’s a mom,” said Preya Samsundar, a senior communications adviser at SFA Fund Inc. “There are just some issues that sound better coming from her and that make more sense coming from her because it is a lived experience, not just something you’re parroting off because a consultant told you or because you read it in a newspaper.”  

Haley, like many of the other 2024 GOP contenders, has also been trying to navigate Trump’s dominance among the Republican primary electorate. She served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump after criticizing his candidacy during the 2016 Republican presidential primary.  

Haley was among the majority on stage who raised their hand when asked whether they still would support Trump as the GOP nominee even if he was convicted of a crime. But Haley offered criticism of the former president, particularly on electability. Haley called him “the most disliked in all of America,” saying it was no way to win a general election.  

“I think in some respects we’re starting to see an avenue in which Nikki Haley can talk about Trump, talk about why she’s the best candidate not only to take him on but to be the nominee and she’s doing it in a way that’s not turning people off,” Samsundar said.  

Her criticism is considerably more tempered than that of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has blasted the former president repeatedly on the campaign trail.  

“She’s still thoughtful about how much it’s an attack on Trump and how much it’s an attack of, ‘We need something new in the party,’” Dittmar said. “But sure, it looks like in this moment she’s a little more willing to do some direct contrast and criticism to Trump, which is a challenge with these primary electorate.”  

And much of that pro-Trump electorate is crucial in a GOP primary.  

“People are going to learn more about her if they didn’t already know about her because she stood out on that stage,” Dittmar said. “But those aren’t necessarily voters she needs to win the primary.”  

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