Ron Desantis and Nikki Haley
Nikki Haley weighs in on speculation around DeSantis' boots
01:59 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The most important question in the GOP presidential race for the next few weeks isn’t if anyone can narrow Donald Trump’s imposing lead over his rivals; it’s whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley can surpass the other clearly enough to create a genuine one-on-one contest with the former president.

The answer to that second question likely will go a long way toward answering the first. No one in the party disputes that all the candidates face long odds of toppling the current front-runner. But many of the Republican strategists skeptical of Trump now view the race as a kind of stair-step: before any other candidate can really challenge Trump, they argue, he or she must achieve what his 2016 rivals could not by clearing the field to create a binary choice with him.

“You’ve got to have one real challenger: two or three doesn’t help you,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire state attorney general and GOP strategist who has been active in every primary there since 1964. “The more splintered this field stays, the better it is for Donald Trump.”

For much of this year, most Republicans assumed that DeSantis was best positioned to emerge as Trump’s principal rival. And GOP strategists supporting the Florida governor still argue that he remains the only alternative with both the breadth of appeal in the party and the national campaign organization to truly threaten Trump.

But many Republican strategists believe that DeSantis’ struggles to connect with voters, and his choice to run at Trump solely from the right, have opened a lane for Haley to eclipse the Florida governor. Some Republicans believe Haley has already done so — partly because she now appears to have a much clearer path than DeSantis to strong showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two critical early states that follow the kick-off Iowa caucuses that he has prioritized.

“I think Haley is clearly the second-place candidate right now,” said veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Even about two months away from the first contest on the GOP calendar, all indications suggest that the first stage of that culling process has already occurred. An array of recent polls, both nationally and in the battleground states, signal that DeSantis and Haley have separated themselves from the rest of the candidates chasing Trump. “The field has winnowed down to where they are at the top,” said Alice Stewart, a CNN political commentator who has worked on multiple GOP presidential campaigns.

One clear measure of that separation was a 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of likely Republican primary voters who watched last week’s debate. Just over half of those debate-watchers said they were considering voting for Haley or DeSantis; only about a quarter said they were even considering the other three candidates on the stage, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Scott quit the race on Sunday.

The reason some in the party now view Haley as a stronger option than DeSantis is not because of big shifts in the national polling, where he still typically leads her as a distant second place finisher to Trump; rather it’s because of how they are positioned in the first three major contests on the calendar – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

DeSantis is following the same strategy relied upon by other recent GOP presidential hopefuls who ran hard to the right on social issues. Like Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016, DeSantis is betting his campaign predominantly on a strong showing in Iowa. Following the tracks of those predecessors, DeSantis has campaigned exhaustively in Iowa, devoted more effort to building a campaign organization there than anywhere else, and placed the highest priority on consolidating support among the state’s evangelical Christians. DeSantis has attracted the most backing from local elected officials (including Gov. Kim Reynolds, who endorsed him last week) and seems likely to win endorsements from the state’s leading religious conservatives.

Variations on that model allowed Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz to each win Iowa. But none of them came close to winning the nomination. Once each man was defined in Iowa as the candidate of evangelical social conservatives, he struggled to compete in states where those voters were not the dominant faction in the GOP electorate. Their problems immediately manifested in New Hampshire, when any momentum they acquired in Iowa crashed as if sliding into a snowbank: neither Huckabee, Santorum nor Cruz reached even 12% of the vote in the Granite State, where only about one-fourth of GOP voters identify as evangelicals (about half the level as in Iowa). Ultimately none of those past three Iowa winners captured more than a dozen states or came close to beating the front-runner in their primary races (John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016).

Haley’s campaign believes DeSantis has placed himself squarely on the same dead-end path. “Even if DeSantis were to do well in Iowa, which is a big ‘if’ given his current decline, he is in such a weak position in New Hampshire and South Carolina that it doesn’t matter,” Haley’s campaign argued in a memo released to reporters last week. “He has no end game.” In a sign of Haley’s improving position, her campaign this week announced it would launch a $10 million ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire, after spending only a little over $100,000 on its own advertising in those states so far. (A super PAC supporting Haley has made larger buys.) That dwarfs the ad purchases DeSantis’ campaign has announced, although he too has the help of a super PAC.

Many GOP strategists and operatives not affiliated with any of the campaigns agree that Haley now has more room than DeSantis to grow in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Recent polls in both states, including a CNN/SSRS survey in her home state of South Carolina, have found her with about one-fifth of the vote, roughly double DeSantis’ support.

Both Ayres and Rath say the New Hampshire electorate should be more favorable to Haley than to DeSantis. The weak showings for Huckabee, Santorum and Cruz continued a long-standing pattern in which New Hampshire GOP voters have rejected the most socially conservative candidates – even George W. Bush lost there in 2000.

Even if DeSantis finishes unexpectedly well in Iowa, “he will have done so by running to Trump’s right on abortion and gaining a significant portion of conservative evangelicals,” Dante Scala – a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire and author of “Stormy Weather,” a book on the New Hampshire primary – wrote in an email. “But that anti-abortion message does not play well here.” By contrast, Scala said, Haley’s message of seeking “consensus” on abortion “will pay off among NH GOP women (and college educated GOPers generally).” Haley has said that although she is personally “pro-life,” she does not believe there are enough votes in Congress to pass a national abortion ban. “At the federal level, it’s not realistic,” she has argued on multiple occasions.

Much like McCain, w