During the first Republican presidential debate in August, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley arguably took the strongest stance against GOP standard-bearer Donald Trump.
"We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America," Haley said at one point. And amid a discussion about spending, Haley remarked, "Donald Trump added $8 trillion to our debt. And our kids are never going to forgive us for this."
In the debates that followed, Haley's most memorable takedowns were mostly showered on pro-Trump tech bro Vivek Ramaswamy, whom Haley clearly disdains.
But going into the final pre-Iowa Republican debate Wednesday evening at the University of Alabama, the question is whether Haley will return to taking shots at Trump.
To her credit, Haley has worked her way into position to make a run at Trump in New Hampshire and South Carolina if she can outperform expectations in Iowa, where she has a shot at overtaking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for a second-place finish. In 538's aggregate of Iowa polling, Haley is running roughly 2 percentage points behind DeSantis (17.5% to 19.7%, respectively), while Trump sits at nearly 46%. Two points is rather meaningless in the Iowa caucuses, where organizing, turnout, and determination rule the day.
So Haley, a shrewd but deeply cynical politician, will be making the calculation of whether exciting the small slice of anti-Trump Republicans will prove more potent on Jan. 15 than making a play for a segment of DeSantis and Ramaswamy devotees.
DeSanis, for his part, is already talking like a loser to his inner circle. Bloomberg's Nancy Cook reported this week that DeSantis has "privately acknowledged to friends and allies that Trump holds so much sway over the Republican voter base that it leaves little room for alternative candidates. The timing may not have been right for DeSantis to run, according to allies."
That's another way of saying he blew it without owning any responsibility for his campaign’s failings. Coming off his decisive reelection campaign last year, DeSantis was in position to challenge Trump early this year but proved to lack both the raw talent and strategic insights to capitalize on it.
If Cook's reporting is accurate, DeSantis will likely play it safe in the debate to keep his options open post-Iowa. A strong finish in the Hawkeye State could reignite his campaign, while being supplanted by Haley for second place would surely be the death knell. But DeSantis blaming "the timing" for his failings suggests he wants another shot, in 2028. If that's the case, he will pointedly not be throwing any barbs in Trump's direction, since he will want to preserve the loyalty of MAGA voters.
Rounding out the four-person debate will be Ramaswamy, who sits at 4.8% in Iowa, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who's at a meager 3.9%. Christie, however, has devoted his candidacy to a surprise finish in New Hampshire, which is far more suited to his bare-knuckle style of campaigning.
If Haley wants to swing for the fences, Trump has certainly gifted her with plenty of material of late. Case in point: Trump's assertion Tuesday during a Fox News town hall that he would be a dictator “on day one."
Any politician who entirely takes a pass on that brazen threat to American democracy has made a choice … not to challenge Trump for the nomination.