The Republican Presidential primary has been a curiously hidden contest: with Donald Trump effectively boycotting the trail, the remaining candidates have mostly struggled to draw the attention of potential supporters and the political press, both of whom seem sure that the real action is elsewhere. But by the end of the third Republican debate, on Wednesday evening, the main development of the primary had become clear. Nikki Haley is the best debater in the field, and she would probably be the G.O.P.’s most effective opponent to Joe Biden. “Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?” Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been baiting the former South Carolina governor all campaign, asked the audience at one point. Haley’s response drew cheers: “They’re five-inch heels.” But she didn’t disavow Cheney.
The debate was held a day after the 2023 elections, and the results of Tuesday night—headlined by Republican losses in Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia— seemed to liberate the Presidential candidates, at least to a degree. If Trump’s party was no longer delivering wins, then maybe his opponents didn’t need to show him such unquestioning loyalty. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, nudged by the moderators to offer some criticism of Trump, said, “I’m sick of Republicans losing.” Ramaswamy denounced Ronna McDaniel, Trump’s handpicked R.N.C. chair, who, as Ramaswamy pointed out, has presided over four disappointing elections for her party. But more than the other challengers, Haley recognized that an electability argument wasn’t likely to do much damage to Trump. Instead, she went after him on policy. Trump “used to be right on Ukraine,” Haley said. “Now he’s getting weak in the knees.”
Give her points for consistency. In Haley’s eyes, everyone else was a squish. She went after DeSantis and Trump for pandering, by saying they wouldn’t cut Medicare and Social Security benefits, and then promised to raise the retirement age on entitlements. She chided DeSantis alone for his opposition to drilling in the Florida Everglades. “It cracks me up that Ron continues to do this—he has opposed fracking, he has opposed drilling,” Haley said, of the Florida governor. “He was praised by the Sierra Club, and you’re trying to make up for it and act like you weren’t a liberal when it comes to the environment.” She reserved special contempt for Ramaswamy. “You’re just scum,” she said to him, after he criticized Haley’s adult daughter for using TikTok. After Ramaswamy rejected the idea of providing further U.S. support for Ukraine, she said, “I am telling you Putin and President Xi are salivating at the thought that someone like that could become President.” Iran, she said, “responds to strength—you punch them once and you punch them hard and they will back off.” What advice, she was asked, would she give Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his war with Hamas? She said that she had already offered it to him: “Finish them. Finish them.”
This wasn’t exactly a surgical performance. Haley is a bludgeon. She is a practiced enough politician that she will often begin with some statement of empathy—“as the wife of a combat veteran”; “as a mom”—but she is often quickly on the attack. Ever since 2016, Republican consultants have been saying that what the Party’s voters want above all is someone who will fight for them, and Haley’s martial posture was so constant and omnidirectional that it somewhat masked the fact that she is fighting for things (a straightforwardly neoconservative approach overseas, gestures toward entitlement cuts) that Republicans in the Trump era were supposed to have set aside. But close your eyes in the middle of the debate on Wednesday night (at least, during the moments that Ramaswamy was not talking) and it might have been 2007, or 2011. Other candidates took Haley’s lead. At one point, the South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the nice guy in the field, alarmingly called for strikes against Iran.
Politically, Haley is a loner—that has always been one of her limitations. In South Carolina, her rapid rise spawned furious rivalries within the state Republican Party. She doesn’t really belong to the Christian right or the libertarian extreme, but she isn’t a moderate, either. When I’ve seen her on the trail, she has tended to leave audiences cold—who, they seem to wonder, is this all for? In Iowa this week, the Republican Governor Kim Reynolds finally decided to turn away from Trump. But, despite the fact that Haley is the candidate with momentum recently, Reynolds backed DeSantis (and in the process may have helped revive his flagging campaign in the state). But Haley’s independence is, in another sense, a gift, since it frees her to attack. She is just nudging over ten per cent in the early-state polls—hardly anything that would make Trump uneasy. But the focus of Wednesday’s debate on foreign policy benefitted her and, if this is a turning point and Haley begins to turn directly against Trump, then the Presidential primary campaign could get much more interesting. Unlike Chris Christie, whose potency as a debater was wildly overhyped, Nikki Haley can land a punch.
By the end of Wednesday night’s debate, it seemed that Haley might have found a way to do so against Trump. Before 2016, Republicans had spent a generation choosing the most stringent free marketers and least complicated defense hawks as their nominees. Democrats, who defended entitlements and criticized American influence abroad, lacked resolve. But, if Trump had distanced himself from these conservative orthodoxies, then why couldn’t he also be attacked as weak? Trump’s advantage in the polls, and the low profile of the Republican primary so far, may mean that he never really has to answer to this challenge. But it would be interesting to see what would happen if he did. The blue-ribbon Times/Siena poll out this week has Trump beating Biden in five of the six swing states, and trailing the incumbent President only in Wisconsin, where Biden is up by two points. But that same poll also asked Wisconsin voters whether they preferred Biden or Haley. They went for Haley, by thirteen. ♦