DeSantis seeks to regain lost ground in high-stakes Alabama debate

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing high stakes ahead of this week’s Republican primary debate in Alabama, as he looks to regain lost ground in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

The forum, which is hosted by NewsNation — a news organization owned by Nexstar, which also owns The Hill — comes as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley poses a major threat to DeSantis in polling out of Iowa and New Hampshire. Additionally, Haley is appearing to shore up support from the donor class as well as the powerful, Koch-aligned group Americans For Prosperity (AFP).

The primary debate also comes shortly after DeSantis participated in an unusual televised debate Thursday with Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is not running for president but has stoked White House speculation of his own.

Both men were able to land a number of jabs at each other during the Fox News event, with DeSantis accusing Newsom of running a “shadow campaign” for president and calling his California counterpart a “liberal bully,” while Newsom mocked DeSantis over his lagging poll numbers, asking the Florida governor when he was going to drop out of the race to give Haley “a shot to take down Donald Trump.”

DeSantis’s performance, like Newsom’s, was generally well-received by members of his party at the end of the night.

“He needs to carry on that momentum he had last night from the Gavin Newsom debate where he comes in as very substantive,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based GOP strategist.

“Go after Nikki Haley in some of the ways that Gavin Newsom tried to come after you,” he added.

The Newsom debate was friendly territory for DeSantis, given Fox News host Sean Hannity’s self-proclaimed conservative lean. The forum was also an opportunity for DeSantis to contrast his record as governor of Florida, which has trended red in recent years, with Newsom’s job in California, a reliably blue state.

However, DeSantis faces a very different environment heading into next week’s debate, where he will be on stage with Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. As of Friday, it was unclear whether former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would qualify for the stage.

“I don’t think that most people think that Vivek is going to be the nominee of the party or has a chance at being the Trump alternative, so I think that the opportunity exists for Gov. DeSantis to show why he’s the best alternative for President Trump over Nikki Haley,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican strategist.

DeSantis has been in a battle with Haley for second place for months, as she has steadily gained on him in the polls following several strong debate performances. Polling out of New Hampshire shows Haley surging to second place, while recent polling out of Iowa shows her tied with DeSantis. According to the RealClearPolitics national polling average, Trump leads the pack with 62 percent support, DeSantis comes in second with 13.6 percent support and Haley comes in with 9.6 percent.

“Gov. DeSantis remains the only candidate close to the front-runner,” said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor. “There’s been movement among the pack but it hasn’t changed the basic order of the front-runners.”

Eberhart called on DeSantis to take an aggressive tone against Trump in an effort to maintain his second-place perch.

“DeSantis shouldn’t punch down. He needs to target the front-runner, and when he’s not doing that, he needs to speak directly to voters about what he’s going to do for them when he’s president,” Eberhart said, adding that “getting into verbal battles with Ramaswamy and Haley only elevates them.”

However, other Republicans argue that DeSantis should take Haley head-on amid recent praise she has received from donors and nonpopulist Republicans.

“You want to paint Nikki Haley as not America First,” O’Connell said. “The point isn’t that she’s on the side of American workers, she’s on the side of Wall Street.”

In addition to receiving the AFP’s endorsement this week, Haley also received praise from JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. On Wednesday, Dimon said Democrats should help Haley in her presidential bid, saying she would be “better than Trump.”

Trump, in turn, hit Dimon in a Truth Social post, calling him “overrated.”

“Highly overrated Globalist Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, is quietly pushing another non-MAGA person, Nikki Haley, for President,” Trump wrote. “I’ve never been a big Jamie Dimon fan, but had to live with this guy when he came begging to the White House.”

Sayfie noted that having the support of the wealthiest Americans in a GOP primary is not going to lead to much support from primary voters.

Trump and DeSantis have both appealed to many of the same populist Republican voters throughout their political careers, and still do. An October NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey found that 67 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa say they are considering both DeSantis and Trump.

And while Haley’s backers say she has a broad appeal for Republicans across the party’s spectrum, other Republicans say that Trump and DeSantis are more reflective of the party’s populist base.

“I was a Jeb Bush supporter in 2016, and I watched it happen,” Sayfie said. “He had the money, he had the resources, he had the endorsement, he had the organization structure. He had everything. He checked all the boxes.”

“The only path to winning the nomination is from the populist wing of the party, period. End of story,” he said.

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