Nikki Haley has some momentum. Her challenge is still immense.

Nikki Haley has some momentum. Her challenge is still immense.

Nikki Haley is having a moment. With one month to go before the first presidential nominating contest, the polls, fundraising, and energy are all on the upswing for the former South Carolina governor – boosting her argument that she is best positioned to challenge former President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. 

Last week, the political network founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch endorsed Ms. Haley. Polls now have her in a clear, albeit distant, second place behind Mr. Trump in New Hampshire and South Carolina. And in a telltale sign of a candidate’s momentum, her opponents came out of the gate attacking her at the final Republican debate last night.

Why We Wrote This

Some strategists say former President Donald Trump’s support is softer than it looks – with many GOP voters open to an alternative nominee who shares his policies. But it’s a lot of ground to make up.

The question is whether any of it will matter. Despite facing multiple criminal indictments, former President Trump remains the overwhelming favorite among Republican voters, leading the field by 20 to 50 points. 

Haley supporters here in South Carolina note that she was an underdog in her first, successful campaign for governor. Despite the odds, they are hoping she can pull off an upset for the ages.

“Nikki’s policies would be similar [to Mr. Trump’s],” says Sharon Carter, a retired elementary school teacher who chairs the Bamberg County Republican Party, “but she would do it in a polite way.”

After blessing the lunch of fried chicken and black-eyed peas with a prayer and ordering a sweet tea, Sharon Carter places her palms on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth at Rusty and Paula’s, the main eatery in Bamberg, South Carolina, and explains why she’s in such a good mood. 

Her preferred candidate in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, Bamberg native and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, is having a moment. With a little over one month to go before the first nominating contest in Iowa, the polling, fundraising, and energy are all on the upswing for Ms. Haley – boosting her argument that she is the one best positioned to challenge former President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. 

Last week, the political network founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch endorsed Ms. Haley, bringing money for TV ads and a ground operation of door-knockers and phone callers. Polls now have her in a clear – albeit distant – second place behind Mr. Trump in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and closing the gap with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place in Iowa. A town hall last week on the South Carolina coast in Bluffton turned into a rally of 2,500, with hundreds reportedly turned away at the door after the event reached capacity. And in a telltale sign of a candidate’s momentum, her opponents came out of the gate attacking her at the final Republican debate last night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor

“How anyone could choose another candidate [in the GOP primary] is beyond me,” says Sharon Carter, a Nikki Haley supporter and chair of the Bamberg Republican Party, over lunch at local restaurant Rusty and Paula’s in Bamberg, South Carolina.

Why We Wrote This

Some strategists say former President Donald Trump’s support is softer than it looks – with many GOP voters open to an alternative nominee who shares his policies. But it’s a lot of ground to make up.

“I love all the attention, fellas, thank you for that,” said Ms. Haley to her three male opponents on stage. 

The question is, however, will any of it matter in a campaign year that’s unlike any other? Despite facing multiple criminal indictments, former President Trump remains the overwhelming favorite among Republican voters, leading the field by 20 to 50 points. Ms. Haley’s strong debate performances, which have clearly contributed to her gains in support, have all come with the caveat that Mr. Trump has not participated.

Haley supporters here in South Carolina, many of them former Trump voters, recognize the long odds. Still, they note she was a long shot in her first, successful campaign for governor. And they point to polls showing she does better than Mr. Trump in head-to-head matchups against President Joe Biden. They are hoping that over the next few months momentum will beget momentum – and that Ms. Haley will pull off an upset for the ages.

“There are those that are for Trump because they saw the policies and they agree. But I believe there are more people who are realizing that Nikki’s policies would be similar – but she would do it in a polite way,” says Ms. Carter, a retired elementary school teacher who chairs the Bamberg County Republican Party. “I really believe she’s starting to translate that to folks.”

Overhearing Ms. Carter’s comments as he leaves Rusty & Paula’s with his wife, Kendra, local hay farmer and lifelong Republican Glenn Gustafson says he’s been sending Ms. Haley $47 a month to help her become the 47th president. He’s already told his son that he’ll have to drive him to Washington to watch Ms. Haley’s inauguration if she wins. 

“And she can win,” says Mr. Gustafson.

“If Trump wasn’t running, she would,” his wife adds. 

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor

Kendra and Glenn Gustafson, hay farmers from Bamberg, South Carolina, voted for Donald Trump twice but hope Nikki Haley will be the Republican nominee in 2024.

Soft Trump supporters  

The conundrum that Ms. Haley faces in the GOP primary race – how to attract both Trump-averse Republicans and “Make America Great Again” supporters – is personified by these three South Carolinians. 

Ms. Carter, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but then decided to vote for Mr. Biden, “the lesser of two evils,” in 2020 because “character is important,” isn’t sure what she’ll do in 2024 if Mr. Trump is the GOP nominee. The Gustafsons, both two-time Trump voters, are more sympathetic to the former president. His term in office was “chaotic,” they agree, but it was far better than the Biden administration. They’d vote for Mr. Trump next year if he’s the nominee, to get Mr. Biden out of office.

All three, however, see Ms. Haley as the best choice for the party.

“I think Nikki can do the same job as Trump, but without all the crap,” says Mr. Gustafson. 

Of course, they all recognize, as they pull up photos of themselves with Ms. Haley in this exact restaurant, that they might be a little biased. Bamberg, one the least-populated, poorest counties in South Carolina, is Ms. Haley’s hometown. Her presidential campaign announcement video was centered around her childhood here. Rusty & Paula’s, the only dining option in town besides a Hardee’s on the end of a vacant Main Street, features “Haley for President” signs outside and bumper stickers next to the register. Ms. Haley came in here two weeks before her campaign announcement rally in Charleston, says Ms. Carter, who remembers Ms. Haley from middle school, to let her hometown know she would be running. 

“If she continues to rise, the independent and female voters will get behind her more and more,” says Ronny Maxwell, a banker in Bamberg who has voted Republican for the past four decades, including twice for Mr. Trump. 

“Our country needs someone who can put 100 percent into presidential duties,” he says, adding that he believes Mr. Trump will be too distracted with his numerous trials. “I’m grateful for the progress Trump made in his term, but I’m hopeful for the future. And I think Nikki is our answer.”

Ed Goeas, a Republican strategist who worked on presidential campaigns for both former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, says the number of “Always Trumpers,” or voters who say they will vote for the former president no matter what, has decreased from a majority of Republicans in 2020 to around 40%. The plurality of Republicans today, he says – around 50% – are more like Mr. Maxwell and the Gustafsons: Voters who previously cast ballots for Mr. Trump and still like his policies, but would prefer a different Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Just 10% are “Never Trumpers.” 

“I think everyone is misreading the lead that Trump has, because that lead is in a multi-candidate race,” says Mr. Goeas. By campaigning in such a singular way, and skipping events like last night’s debate, Mr. Trump is doing little to expand his “Always Trump” voter pool, he says. And the more other candidates drop out, which Mr. Goeas believes could happen sooner than it did in 2016, “the more it becomes a Nikki-Trump fight,” with supporters of Mr. DeSantis or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie moving into Ms. Haley’s camp. 

“Haley’s getting the lightning in the bottle at exactly the right time going into the primaries,” he adds.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor

Downtown Bamberg, South Carolina, where Nikki Haley’s mother had a clothing store while the GOP presidential candidate was growing up, is now dotted with vacant storefronts.

Will the field consolidate?

Some of Ms. Haley’s rise has come at Mr. DeSantis’ expense. The Florida governor was polling in a strong second place before he even launched his campaign but has seen his support steadily drop ever since. And while Mr. DeSantis has “put all his eggs in Iowa’s basket,” Ms. Haley is “the only candidate that’s in a solid position in all three early states” of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, says Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson for the Haley campaign. (Polling has been minimal in Nevada, the fourth early voting state, with a caucus in February.) 

The Haley strategy looks something like this: Perform as well as possible in Iowa, then pull off a surprise win New Hampshire (which has a history of boosting underdogs), before heading to South Carolina, where she can benefit from a home-state advantage. In 2008, former Arizona Sen. John McCain used a New Hampshire win, after coming in fourth in Iowa, to slingshot his way to the nomination. 

“Along the way, the field continues to consolidate and Nikki gains the most as the field consolidates and gets smaller,” says Ms. Perez-Cubas. 

But this consolidation is far from assured. Other non-Trump candidates may stay in the race long enough – as they did in 2016 – to ensure a Trump victory in a fractured field. And while the Haley campaign and some strategists believe she would benefit the most if some rivals were to drop out, it’s also possible some of those votes would just go to Mr. Trump.

At a debate watch party for Mr. DeSantis across the state in Greenville on Wednesday night, a room of two dozen supporters sharing nachos erupts in laughter when Vivek Ramaswamy holds up a handwritten sign in the middle of the debate that reads “NIKKI = CORRUPT.” The fourth and final debate was arguably Mr. DeSantis’ best performance, and supporters told the Monitor they were encouraged despite the various setbacks he’s experienced. 

“Haley is more of a globalist,” says Annette Burgess, wearing a DeSantis hat alongside her husband, Bill, when explaining why she prefers the Florida governor to Ms. Haley. “And DeSantis is pro-life like we are. He signed a six-week ban [on abortion], which was big for us in deciding who to support.”

“I went to both the DeSantis and Haley rallies here, and I think they’re both capable leaders, but I have confidence in DeSantis because of how he guided Florida through COVID,” says Jennifer Haring, a Republican voter who voted for Mr. Trump twice. While she’d prefer Mr. DeSantis to win, she says she’d be OK voting for Ms. Haley as well.

But when asked which one has a better chance of closing in on Mr. Trump’s double-digit lead, Ms. Haring laughs.

“Oh, I know that’s not going to happen,” she says, acknowledging that Mr. Trump will likely be the party’s nominee. “But they’ll both be on the world stage. Maybe they’ll have cabinet positions.”

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