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Nikki Haley could mop the floor with Biden. Is that enough to tear GOP away from Trump?

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While time is running out, there is still a chance for a candidate other than Donald Trump to get the GOP nomination. Many voters are just now starting to pay attention to who’s actually in the race.

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At a dinner recently, I chatted with a conservative retired businessman who spends his time between Michigan and Florida. I asked him who among the Republican candidates had piqued his interest. 

He didn’t hesitate: Nikki Haley. “She’s the adult in the room,” he said. 

Other people are paying attention to Haley, too. A word that keeps coming up in regard to the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in President Donald Trump’s administration, is “momentum.” 

Haley seems to have it. 

“Nikki Haley is certainly in a good position,” said Alice Stewart, Republican consultant and veteran presidential communications adviser. “You want to have the momentum and you want to peak at the right time, and right now she’s got the momentum a month out from the Iowa caucus.” 

In the past week, Haley earned the coveted endorsement from the influential Koch network. Through Americans for Prosperity Action, its political powerhouse, she will get an infusion of money and help from activists on the ground in states throughout the country. 

The group defended its decision in a memo, stating that Haley “offers America the opportunity to turn the page on the current political era, to win the Republican primary and defeat Joe Biden next November.”

The next day, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon encouraged a group of wealthy business leaders to throw their support behind Haley in an effort to “get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump.” 

All this additional attention means more people will be listening closely to what she has to say at the fourth Republican primary debate on Wednesday

“The more voters hear from Nikki Haley, the more they like her,” said Ashley Davis, vice chair of Winning for Women Action Fund, a Republican super PAC that helps elect conservative women, in a statement. “Her conservative record and positive vision are clearly resonating, and she’s ridden that momentum into second place in critical early states.”  

Is momentum enough going into 2024 presidential election?

If beating President Biden is actually what Republicans want to do, recent polls offer a strong rationale for why Haley may be the best option to do just that. 

Every survey in recent months has the former ambassador leading Biden in hypothetical matchups by a wider margin than Trump – and her other leading GOP contender, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

A November poll from Marquette Law School, for example, showed Haley leading Biden by 10 points – 55% to 45% among registered voters. Trump leads Biden by 4 points; DeSantis bests Biden by 2. 

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Why? Haley is more attractive to independent voters and women who are looking for an alternative to Biden. 

Here’s the challenge, though. When Haley and DeSantis first got into the race, their main goal was to sell themselves as being the electable options – compared with Trump, who has a record of losing since 2018

Biden is such a bad candidate, however, that even Trump with all his baggage looks like he could win a rematch with the president – albeit by a thinner margin than someone like Haley. 

Better than Donald Trump? Prove it. 

With that reality, the electability argument will not be enough for the other Republican hopefuls. 

As much as I wish it weren’t our reality, Trump remains the dominant force in the Republican primary. In national polls, he’s leading the pack by 48 points. Even in the early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where DeSantis and Haley have spent lots of time, Trump leads by nearly 30 points

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While time is running out, there is still a chance to shift this dynamic. Plenty of voters are just now starting to pay attention to who’s actually in the race. 

Michael Meyers, president of TargetPoint Consulting, who has worked with candidates like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, said some competition in the first few contests is the best shot to unseat Trump – and offers time for people to give candidates like DeSantis or Haley a second look. 

“A clean three-way field is the best bet to slow Trump down and then eventually beat him,” Meyers told me. “Everybody talks about how there’s 70% of the party open to a Trump alternative. And I think that’s true, but 25 of that 70 is still voting for him because they don’t see any better alternative.”

‘Not a done deal’

Meyers said Haley has done a good job of consolidating support among GOP voters who don’t like Trump, but that “she hasn’t made real in-roads into that ‘leaning-Trump-but-wouldn’t-mind-somebody-else’ group: That’s the toughest thing they’ve got to do. Most campaigns came into this thinking, ‘We just have to convince people that Trump isn’t electable.’ And it seems clear to me now that they have got to make a case that they are actually better than Trump.” 

That’s no easy task, given Trump’s continued popularity with the GOP base. Yet, if Haley can outperform expectations in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, that momentum could turn things around in subsequent primaries.

“Then she could parlay that into success down the road, especially with her home state of South Carolina,” said David Dulio, distinguished professor of political science at Michigan’s Oakland University. 

“Trump has a stranglehold on it now. But it’s not a done deal.”

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at ijacques@usatoday.com or on X, formerly Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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