Trump rivals drop out and fade away, pitting Nikki Haley versus Ron DeSantis for second

On a private conference call Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged his presidential campaign’s national finance committee to recruit donors from Sen. Tim Scott’s newly defunct operation, according to a participant.

Hours earlier, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that she would spend $10 million on ads in Iowa and New Hampshire starting the first week of December.

At a time when other candidates are dropping out or fading away, these aggressive moves bolster the assertion of an increasing number of Republican strategists and operatives: that the GOP presidential primary is coming down to a fight between Haley and DeSantis to pull into second behind former President Donald Trump.

The field is already winnowing, long before the first votes are cast in Iowa’s Jan. 15 caucuses.

Former Vice President Mike Pence suspended his bid late last month, and Scott abruptly followed suit Sunday after a lackluster showing in last week’s NBC News-hosted GOP debate. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy are polling in the low-to-mid single digits, and two other candidates — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — failed to qualify for the debate.

Yet the consolidation of the field isn’t a slam-dunk positive for the remaining Trump rivals trying to catch up to him. In Iowa, Scott’s supporters split relatively evenly among Trump, Haley and DeSantis when their second choices were polled in an NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey last month. Each of the other three candidates would get about a quarter of the 7% support Scott got in that survey.

“Everyone’s wrestling for second place at this point, if these polls are to believed, which I think they are,” said a Christie donor, who posited that only a criminal conviction of Trump could change the dynamics. “Short of that, I don’t see honestly how he loses the nomination.”

Within Christie’s circle of donors, there’s a growing sense of doom — and some suggestion that it’s time for him to exit the stage.

“Those of us who are anyone-but-Trump are wondering why he doesn’t get out of the race,” said a second Christie contributor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the candidate. “He’s lower-level Lilliputian at this point. I haven’t seen any evidence that we’re making any headway.”

“If we were determining the race at this moment based on current polling then everyone should get out and just cede it to Trump,” said Maria Comella, a senior adviser to Christie. “That’s not how this works. We are still over two months away from the first votes being cast and this is a war of attrition. This will end up being a two-person race and I’d like to see the person standing there next to Trump actually be the one candidate able to take him on.”

Comella gently chided those who think they have a crystal ball.

“For everyone today who seems to know exactly how this is going to play out, I’d like to know where they were back in 2016, 2012, and 2008,” she said.

In a milestone first reported by NBC News, Christie’s campaign said Monday that he has met the 80,000-donor threshold to qualify for the next Republican debate in December. But he has not yet met the polling criteria, according to an NBC News analysis. That would require him to hit the 6 percent mark in two national polls or in one national poll plus two polls from separate states.

DeSantis, the beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars in spending by the super PAC Never Back Down, had some early stumbles in raising money for his campaign.

But DeSantis allies were pleased with his performance in last week’s debate, and his campaign raised $1 million within 24 hours of the face-off with Haley, Ramaswamy, Christie and Scott. (Haley also raised $1 million in the first 24 hours). After launching a $2 million ad buy in Iowa earlier this year, DeSantis was in strong enough financial position to pour more cash into the buy.

Still, some donors remain jittery over the cash flow.

“The burn rate was so high in the beginning, he could be on fumes by Iowa,” said a second DeSantis donor who was not on the Monday call. “That’s why you’re seeing these desperate cash calls.”

But the campaign pushed back on any notion that DeSantis was struggling with fundraising.

”As much as the press loves to play the unnamed sources game, the reality is that our campaign’s fundraising only continues to accelerate,” said DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo. “We continue to see great results, such as raising over $1 million in 24 hours after the debate last week, and will have all the resources we need to grind out the battle for the nomination.”

The DeSantis donor, like many other Republicans have in recent weeks, described the contest as a two-person race to be in second to Trump.

Haley, who has risen in national and state-by-state polls since the first Republican debate at the end of September, is still below 10% in most national surveys. But she was running even with DeSantis for second place in Iowa in the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll in October, and she also holds that spot in many public polls of both New Hampshire and South Carolina. DeSantis has been in second place in national surveys, behind Trump, since before he entered the race in May.

There doesn’t appear to be much incentive for either DeSantis or Haley to leave the race at a time when both of them have enough cash to keep running, polls show that they have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack and voters haven’t yet cast ballots. But even if one of them could consolidate non-Trump support, it’s not clear that the former president could be defeated.

Trump has been polling above the 50 percent threshold — at times cracking the 60 percent mark in surveys — for several months. His attacks on DeSantis appear to have weighed down the Florida governor, who now polls worse against President Joe Biden in many hypothetical general-election matchups than Trump does.

A New York Times/Siena College poll this month showed Haley beating Biden in a general election by a greater margin in most battleground states than other Republicans, including Trump.

That explains, at least in part, why Haley is getting a second look from donors to other candidates who have either dropped out or who look like they are on their last legs.

Bill Strong, a donor and member of Haley’s campaign executive committee said he thinks it will be a two-person race: between Haley and Trump.

He pointed to polls showing Haley leading DeSantis in New Hampshire and South Carolina and being in a dead heat for second in Iowa. He also argued that Haley spent her money wisely, ramping up following a strong first debate performance in Milwaukee in September and waiting for December to launch a $10 million TV ad campaign in Iowa.

“Governor DeSantis will fight hard. Nikki will win,” Strong said. “The focus I’ve had is, get it down to a point where it’s Nikki versus President Trump and then the voters can decide. I think when they see the contrast — given his age and her policy positions — she’s going to be the nominee.”

But the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey suggests that the lion’s share of DeSantis voters in Iowa would go to Trump, not Haley, if the Florida governor dropped out, while the plurality of Haley voters would go to DeSantis if she exited the race. It’s been part of the DeSantis team’s pitch for support throughout the fall.

Forty-one percent of DeSantis supporters in Iowa said Trump is their second choice and only 27 percent said Haley, according to the poll. But 34 percent of Haley voters chose DeSantis as their second choice, with only 12 percent identifying Trump as their next pick.

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