In the run-up to Wednesday’s fifth Republican Presidential debate, the question was whether we would see a different, less careful Nikki Haley. The G.O.P. field has essentially narrowed to three, with Haley coming from the back of the pack to edge into second in most recent polls, just ahead of Ron DeSantis and still far behind Donald Trump. She had done so, in large part, by moving tactically, carving out a discernibly moderate position while being careful not to attack Trump too directly. But there were reasons to think that a change in strategy might be coming, both because the first votes are nearly here—Iowa caucuses on Monday—and because Trump had circulated a noxious far-right conspiracy theory suggesting that Haley was not eligible to hold the Presidency because of the citizenship status, at the time of her birth, of her Indian-immigrant parents.
After the throat-clearing of the opening statements, Jake Tapper, one of the evening’s moderators, leaned in expectantly: Did Donald Trump have the character to be President? You could almost see Haley flinch. “Well, I think the next President needs to have moral clarity,” she said. A moment later, she circled back: “His way is not my way.” And that was just about it. The viewer had the answer: She wasn’t really going to go after Trump. She (and the race) were pretty much the same.
It was a little frustrating to watch Haley on Wednesday night, not because she was debating ineffectively but because she seemed trapped in the conviction that the Republican primary voter was a staunch conservative who did not want to hear anything bad said about Trump. Haley had worked to take a more moderate position on abortion than the rest of the field, but she didn’t bring it up until the moderators did, an hour and twenty minutes in. She has previously spoken with some humanity about illegal immigrants, saying that “we don’t need to talk about them as criminals. . . . They’re families that want a better life.” But, when the moderators reminded her of that history, Haley just about disavowed it. “You have to deport ’em,” she said.
Once again, Trump had declined to join the debate, which was aired on CNN, choosing instead to hold a town hall on Fox News. The theory had been that, perhaps, having just two people onstage would concentrate the spotlight. Instead, Haley and DeSantis competed to sound more resolute on issues on which they share a fundamental hawkishness: the debt, China, school choice. They compared, again and again, their records governing South Carolina and Florida, respectively. They zeroed in not on the man leading the race but on the person at the other podium. “Go to DeSantisLies.com,” Haley said, repeatedly, whenever the Florida governor said just about anything regarding her or her record. What about TrumpLies.com? Was that URL taken?
Earlier in the day, in Windham, New Hampshire, Chris Christie had dropped out of the race. He had not been a particularly energetic or effective campaigner, but he had been the lone Republican candidate who seemed genuinely disturbed by the idea that Trump might again be President. “Donald Trump wants you to be angry every day because he is angry,” Christie had said. Christie’s supporters probably overlap the most with Haley’s, and the former New Jersey governor seemed to hint that, by getting out, he might clear a path for her: “I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be President of the United States again.” But maybe that was just to clear his conscience. Moments before his press conference began, Christie was caught on a hot mike, saying of Haley, “She’s going to get smoked—you and I both know it. She’s not up to this.”
People have been saying that about DeSantis—that he’s not up to this—for months now. The Florida governor started 2src23 narrowly trailing Trump in the polls, with a formidable wealth of funds and staff. He ended the year hovering close to single digits and losing donors, with his super PAC’s chief strategist having resigned. A campaign is a seduction of a sort, and the trouble for DeSantis is that he is charmless.
But, after a year of relentless campaigning, the Florida governor has attained a sort of self-knowledge: he knows his limitations, his boundaries, and his talking points. In the debate on Wednesday, DeSantis would not go so far as to comment on the substance of the many cases brought against Trump, but he was willing to call the trials a distraction that Republican voters should want to avoid. (“The Democrats and the media would love to run with that,” DeSantis said.) His strategy in the debate was clear, if clumsy: he would try to make Haley out to be a moderate. More than once, he referred to the “pale pastels of the warmed-over corporatism of people like Nikki Haley”—whatever that means—and criticized her for soliciting Chinese investment as governor and for bending to the whims of donors. He wanted to put her in a box, to show that she was too moderate to be viable in Trump’s party.
Haley, by returning to familiar Fox News-approved positions on the debt, the southern border, China, and Israel, just about avoided that characterization. But the evening might have been a little more interesting if she stopped trying. Her position on abortion, her association with the Party’s establishment, her supporters, and her inclination to turn questions on contentious social issues into boasts that she “brought people together”—as she did on Wednesday, in a discussion of the Charleston shooting at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church and her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol—all insure that, in a race against Trump and DeSantis, she will be the moderate. It would make for a sharper contrast with her opponents, and a stronger pitch, if Haley ran as one. On Wednesday, as throughout the campaign, she was not quite willing to do so. On Fox News, Trump was holding forth. On CNN, Haley was trapped in a debate with a smaller man. ♦