Haley seeks to neutralize DeSantis home-field advantage at third GOP debate

Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, left, with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate Sept. 27, 2023 Mark J. Terrill/AP

Haley seeks to neutralize DeSantis home-field advantage at third GOP debate

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Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) may not have a home-field advantage when he and the handful of remaining qualifying Republican presidential primary candidates debate for the third time.

The other candidates, specifically former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, are primed to take on DeSantis next Wednesday in Miami as he tries to maintain his position as the man most likely to take down former President Donald Trump.

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Next week’s debate is poised to become a one-on-one debate between DeSantis and Haley as they compete to be “the last standing, credible alternative to Trump,” the primary’s dominant front-runner, according to University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall.

“They’re going to get a disproportionate amount of time and probably will be pretty negative against each other,” Kall told the Washington Examiner. “DeSantis has been kind of untouched and has got off easy, but I think that that stops this time.”

As such, DeSantis is burdened with the most pressure, potentially exacerbated by the debate’s location, considering he started the primary in a better position than Haley and “the trajectory of the race” so far, per Kall.

“He is the sitting governor of Florida,” the co-author of Debating The Donald said. “This debate is occurring in Miami. If there’s any questions specific to issues that are important to Florida or South Florida, you can expect to know more about it.”

The debate, which is set to be more substantive since fewer candidates have qualified, comes after weeks of escalated tensions between DeSantis and Haley, first regarding the IsraelHamas war and then the Chinese Communist Party. Kall also predicted Florida-centric questions about drilling and fracking, in addition to climate change and immigration.

Ed Lee, director of Emory University’s Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue, contended the debate will be another platform for Haley to demonstrate her “knowledge and discernment to manage global affairs.”

“I think a decision by Haley to not push the conversation in this direction would forgo the rare opportunity to orchestrate a political moment that simultaneously contrasts her strength with her opponent’s weakness at a time when Israeli security has made foreign policy a salient issue for many in the country,” he said.

Lee is “surprised” regarding their underscoring of China because voters do not tend to make electoral decisions over foreign policy that is “disconnected from their domestic concerns,” though DeSantis’s and Haley’s Chinese records could be used to undermine their respective “leadership or judgment” or “to forward a broader argument about our economic vulnerabilities.”

“The Israel-Palestine dispute is more likely to be the focus of the foreign policy segment of the debate,” he said. “There is a clear opportunity to contrast themselves with President [Joe] Biden on an issue that has captured the nation’s attention.”

But with Trump once again declining to debate, DeSantis and Haley need to pull “Trump down closer to them” in terms of polling or their candidacies are meaningless, Kall added.

“The candidates have done a good job of getting their biographies and talking about why they’d be good, maybe as a second choice or vice presidential candidate, but none of them have really made the case that Trump should be disqualified or shouldn’t be considered,” he said.

As of Thursday, DeSantis, Haley, biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) have qualified for the debate. Trump is counterprogramming the debate with a rally in nearby Hialeth, Florida.

“Whatever happens at the debate will not matter. It’s inconsequential,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said. “The must-see big-ticket item that night will be President Trump’s rally, where all the attention will be on him and his campaign to defeat Crooked Joe Biden.”

For Kall, Trump’s rally could insert him into the debate more, particularly if he provides “fodder for questions for moderators,” quipping it would not “shock” him if he showed up at the last minute.

“Maybe outside and doing like a photo-op or something,” he said. “All this counterprogramming, it’s just to try to take attention away from the debate. If the candidates do well, he wants to minimize the impact of that and decrease the ratings.”

Scott previewed that he is anticipating a “serious” discussion “about why America must stand by our ally in the Middle East Israel.”

“And all the other really important topics, but shoulder to shoulder, no daylight is absolutely essential,” he said. “And we should make our point clear.”

Ramaswamy spokeswoman Tricia McLaughlin dismissed speculation DeSantis and Trump, who winters at Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, will have a home-field advantage next week.

“Vivek is making an eight-figure [ad] buy across Iowa and New Hampshire,” McLaughlin said. “If people thought he was aggressive with events leading up to this, stay tuned for post-Nov. 8. This is just [a] start.”

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Another campaign spokesperson joked, “DeSantis won’t have a hometown advantage, but lucky for him, his heels will put him at an even playing field.”

Trump averages 59% support nationally, compared to DeSantis’s 13%, Haley’s 8%, Ramaswamy’s 5%, and Christie’s and Scott’s 2%, RealClearPolitics found.

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