Haley surges as GOP contenders take the debate stage Wednesday in Alabama: What to watch

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As 2023 comes to a close, the Republican presidential primary is coming into sharper focus and the field continues to shrink ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Sen. Tim Scott's sudden departure days after the third debate has many given many conservative voters and donors reason to kick the tires on Nikki Haley's candidacy.

Heading into the fourth GOP debate on Wednesday, the former South Carolina governor has qualified to make the stage as she appears to be the new chief rival to Donald Trump.

The Haley campaign dropped its first TV ad of the 2024 cycle on Friday, which alludes to the former president and current Republican frontrunner's political baggage.

"It’s time for a new generation of conservative leadership," Haley says while looking at the camera.

But she won't be alone on stage this week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as other contenders remain in the race and vie to make their case before a national audience. Trump has skipped every GOP primary debate.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina before the start of the Republican National Committee presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina before the start of the Republican National Committee presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.

Here's what to watch from those who make the Wednesday debate stage.

Nikki Haley

It's been all good news for the former UN ambassador since the last debate−and she knows it, as her team flexes their momentum.

Haley last week received an endorsement from the conservative-leaning Koch political network, which is coveted in the GOP world and bound to give her a boost.

National surveys show her running in second place in the early states, including a 20% hold in a CNN/University of New Hampshire poll in November. She appears to be winning over Trump-averse Republicans fed up with the former president's antics, but her old boss still remains in a comfortable lead.

Haley will likely continue to lean into her foreign policy chops to underscore how she is ready for the presidency. Also expect her to bring up President Joe Biden and emphasize polls that show her besting the incumbent in a hypothetical race.

Haley's surrogates, meanwhile, are trying to poke holes in the perception of Trump's inevitability.

"Don’t look at the person you think is going to win," Marlys Popma, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, said in a telephone town hall last month. "Look at the person who you think is going to be the best for the country."

Ron DeSantis

Florida’s governor may no longer be considered Trump’s chief rival, but he hasn’t been sitting idly since the last debate in Miami.

DeSantis received an endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in the Hawkeye State, where he is tied for second and attracting significant resources.

When DeSantis first entered the race, he spotlighted his culture war battles with Democrats. Since slipping in contention, he has focused more on his record in Florida.

Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis made a campaign stop in Greer at the Historic Greer Depot on Dec. 1, 2023. The candidate talked about his policies and took questions from guests.
Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis made a campaign stop in Greer at the Historic Greer Depot on Dec. 1, 2023. The candidate talked about his policies and took questions from guests.

That might explain why DeSantis decided to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom in an attempt to further contrast with how Democrats run government.

Without Trump as a foil to confront, many expect him to go after Haley more directly as the two have been throwing jabs. DeSantis has also been more critical of the GOP rules around the debates, saying he wants more freedom to engage opponents.

"Whether the RNC should be the ones controlling that, I don’t know if that is necessarily the right way,” he said during a Nov. 20 a town hall hosted by Newsmax.

Vivek Ramaswamy

The 38-year-old biotech engineer without any political experience has outlasted a former vice president and sitting senator, while gaining notoriety for his attack lines and brash style.

But Ramaswamy hasn't fared much better since peaking a few months ago in the polls as voters begin to take a more critical look at his views and policy prescriptions, such as raising the voting age to 25.

Since the last debate, Ramaswamy has committed more resources to Iowa by opening up a new headquarters and promising to hold 200 town halls. He also won't let up on criticizing the RNC and calling on Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to resign.

Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Republican presidential candidate businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

"The Republican establishment has made us a party of losers," he said in a Nov. 30 post on X, formerly Twitter. "Where is the accountability for years of losing: 2018, 2020, 2022 and now 2023? Grassroots conservatives across the nation are joining me to end the culture of surrender and losing."

Going into Wednesday's conversation, it will be interesting to see if Ramaswamy finds a way to distinguish himself from Trump after spending months casting himself as the 2.0 upgrade.

A bulk of those voters seem committed to the original, including Ramaswamy's political director who last week ditched him for the Trump campaign.

Chris Christie

The first order of business for New Jersey's former governor is making the debate stage by meeting the RNC's required thresholds.

Christie must get at least 6% in two national polls that fulfill the party's requirements, which might explain in part why he has joined Ramaswamy in criticizing the committee for blocking unsanctioned conversations between the candidates.

That hasn't stopped him from framing this election as a referendum on Trump, saying the former president's ascension as the 2024 nominee would amount to a "death sentence" for Republicans.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Hudson Institute November 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. Christie spoke as part of the Hudson Institute’s Presidential Speech Series with presidential candidates. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Hudson Institute November 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. Christie spoke as part of the Hudson Institute’s Presidential Speech Series with presidential candidates. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In recent days, however, Christie has tried to play nice with Trump's voters who, like him, might regret their previous support.

"I have no issue with people who have voted for Trump. I supported him, and I was wrong," Christie said in a Nov. 30 post on X.

That could signal a possible pivot should he be allowed to join the other presidential contenders.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nikki Haley's time? What to watch ahead of GOP debate in Alabama