Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen at a campaign rally in Eagle Pass, Texas, on June 26, 2023.
CNN  — 

A furious scramble for second place is underway in the crowded Republican primary contest, with candidates vying for an opportunity to directly take on front-runner Donald Trump. The position, once held by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now appears to be more of a free-for-all.

Since the 2024 presidential race began, the second-place spot in GOP primary polling has been a coveted one. The conventional wisdom was that for candidates not named Trump, one of their earliest objectives would be to become the consensus alternative to the former president. Before and in the early days of DeSantis’ campaign, it seemed like he would be that candidate. The Florida governor enjoyed a robust campaign war chest and early polling showed him trailing only Trump, albeit by a wide margin.

But more recently, DeSantis’s star has begun to fade. He was more muted compared with other rivals at last month’s first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, and he’s now polling at similar levels to several other non-Trump contenders. A new CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of likely GOP primary voters in the Granite State found a close contest for second place between entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and DeSantis.

With the second GOP debate only days away, Haley has been gaining ground with Republican moderates, according to surveys in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and is increasingly trying to distinguish herself on both fiscal and foreign policy.

“We need a leader who will stand up to Democrats and Republicans,” the former governor said Friday as she unveiled her economic policy in an address at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “Republicans talk a big game, but they’re nearly as reckless as the Democrats on spending.”

Her strong showing at the Milwaukee debate, particularly the exchanges with Ramaswamy, gained her the admiration of voters like Tom Boyer, who came to see her speak Friday.

“I appreciated what she said and agreed with her wholeheartedly,” Boyer told CNN. “I like the fact that she’s in favor of supporting Ukraine, and some of her Republican opponents are not. I like her economic plan. I like her reasoning.”

Boyer, a longtime New Jersey resident who retired to New Hampshire, said he also was drawn to Christie’s candidacy but believes Haley has a better path to victory.

“If the problems Trump is having bring him down a little bit, I like her more than any of the other candidates,” Boyer said.

The GOP race will also be driven by voters like Thalia Floras, who said she intends to shed her Democratic Party registration next week in New Hampshire and become an undeclared voter. She said she ultimately intends to take part in the Republican primary and is considering Haley, Christie or former Texas Rep. Will Hurd. She said her chief goal was to find the strongest contender against Trump.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I will support the candidate that could potentially slow or stop Trump.”

Hoping for a stumble

It’s not unheard of for the overarching theme of a presidential primary to be about one consistent front-runner and a revolving door of alternatives. In the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney enjoyed front-runner billing but his top rival changed throughout the primary. At one point, it was Newt Gingrich. At another point, it seemed like Rick Perry was Romney’s biggest threat. At yet another point, it was Rick Santorum. This cycle is shaping up to be similar to that, said Kyle Plotkin, a veteran Republican campaign strategist.

“Everyone’s going to get a second look to be second place,” Plotkin said.