DeSantis is hoping the third Republican primary debate this Wednesday in his home state will be one of those opportunities, but he has to contend with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who outperformed him during their first two meetings, as former President Donald Trump continues to skip them.
The debate, this time in Miami, is “crucial” for DeSantis, “a candidate that some thought was the inevitable nominee” after his resounding gubernatorial reelection, according to Ed Lee, director of Emory University’s Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue.
“This is a pivotal moment for the DeSantis campaign because a few high-quality moments by Nikki Haley will go a long way to helping voters see her as a viable alternative to Trump,” Lee told the Washington Examiner. “A zero-sum relationship is forming between him and Haley. He loses if she gains more name recognition and attention. He must prevent her from having a good night.”
University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall cited DeSantis and Haley arguing over oil drilling and fracking during the second debate in California, predicting the pair will use the third iteration, the first not broadcast by Fox News, to draw “sharp contrasts” between them over the Middle East, federal spending, and Ukraine aid.
“DeSantis has been cautious on the debate stage so far and risen above the fray while other candidates are more forceful and combative,” Kall said. “With a smaller field, there will be no place to hide, and the moderators will do their best to isolate DeSantis and Haley into contentious exchanges.”
“There is inherent risk involved with a more aggressive strategy, but there are a limited amount of opportunities before such a large audience with the holiday season quickly approaching,” he added.
The broader problem for DeSantis is he and Haley are not competing for the same Republican primary voters as the governor portrays himself as “a culture warrior” compared to Haley, “who wants to preserve a friendly environment for businesses while advancing our influence abroad,” per Lee.
“His challenge is that this phase of the campaign is being depicted as a two-person race between him and Nikki Haley for second place,” he said. “Her success in the next debate will be portrayed as accelerating his decline even though they seem to be messaging different parts of the Republican Party.”
To that end, DeDantis’s campaign has underscored Haley as a “spoiler,” “exponentially increasing the odds of a Trump nomination” due to her appeal to “moderate and left-of-center Republicans” not resonating with the “America First” base of the party.
“Every dollar the pro-Haley community collects or spends should also be listed as an ‘in-kind’ contribution on Trump’s campaign FEC reports,” the campaign wrote in a memo.
DeSantis’s campaign concedes the governor had “an incredibly tumultuous summer” but remains adamant he has “rebounded in a historic way,” particularly after Trump’s criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and praise of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah after Hamas‘s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. The governor’s campaign points to his “momentum” in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds’s (R-IA) endorsement, as well as his organizing and fundraising capacity. Trump averages 47% support in Iowa to DeSantis’s 17% and Haley’s 14%, according to RealClearPolitics.
Haley’s campaign previewed her debate strategy in an email with the subject line “These Boots Are Made for Lying,” a reference to disputed reports DeSantis wears lifts.
“No wonder he’s desperate and throwing mud,” the Haley campaign said. “DeSantis has been caught lying about his energy record. He’s been fact-checked again and again for lying about Haley’s record on refugees. Just this week, he orchestrated a government-wide cover-up of his Chinese business recruitment. Ron DeSantis doesn’t tell the truth about anything.”
Haley’s confidence has been enhanced by polls such as this week’s New York Times-Siena College poll survey that found Haley leads President Joe Biden by 9 percentage points in six battleground states, in contrast to Trump and DeSantis, who are only ahead by 3 points.
DeSantis and Haley will also debate biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) after Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) did not qualify and former Vice President Mike Pence dropped out. Meanwhile, Trump will be nearby at a rally in Hialeah, during which Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR) will endorse him.
Trump’s rally comes after his campaign released its own memo, in which it dismisses the debates as meaningless given the former president’s dominance of the primary so far.
“Despite those in the GOP political establishment who insist on having more debates for an ever-shrinking audience and repeat talking points that sound like they were written by Democrats or the Lincoln Project, the Trump campaign is using the time during the primaries and caucuses to fine-tune an already superior organization that we will replicate nationally,” the Trump campaign wrote.