Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump are finally both in the presidential race and sparring daily over their records, leadership style, and name pronunciation. But as the two heavyweights look to differentiate each other, Nikki Haley is trying to convince GOP voters they’re one and the same.
The former South Carolina governor is trying to carve out a lane by arguing that — both on policy and style — DeSantis isn’t a big enough leap from Trump for Republicans disinclined to hand the former president a third nomination.
One prime example? DeSantis’ ongoing legal and political battle with Disney over the company’s criticism of a law restricting classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation.
During her CNN town hall on Sunday, Haley seemed to link it to Trump’s feuds, arguing the company had taken liberal stances in the past on issues like immigration, but that DeSantis only turned on them when criticized personally.
“It’s just like all this vendetta stuff,” Haley said. “We’ve been down that road.” (DeSantis hit back on Monday afternoon during a Fox News appearance.)
Haley’s team has been laying the groundwork for this idea — binding the top two candidates together as one in an effort to best DeSantis as the main non-Trump alternative — for weeks now. At the same town hall, she slammed both candidates over their unwillingness to clearly say whether they want Ukraine to beat out Russia.
“For them to sit there and say that this is a territorial dispute, that’s just not the case — or to say that we should stay neutral,” Haley said. “It’s in the best interest of our national security for Ukraine to win.”
Just days before DeSantis’ campaign launch, Haley’s team also sent out a memo to “interested parties” that argued against DeSantis’ pitch as the more grown-up “credible alternative” to Trump. “Not ‘Trump Without the Drama.’ Just ‘Mini-Trump,’” Haley’s team declared, pointing to recent leaks of internal debate prep footage from DeSantis’ 2018 race, as well as a Florida congressional lawmaker noting that he declined to endorse DeSantis in part because he couldn’t get a call back.
One of the main arguments Haley’s campaign has made is that “a sizable number of voters … want someone that will continue a lot of Trump’s policies, but not [have] the same style,” as one source close to the campaign explained.
In my own conversations with voters over the past few months, that fact certainly seems true — it’s common to hear voters who like his record, but not his volatile behavior or rhetoric.
The problem for Haley? So far, DeSantis is seen as that candidate, and both he and Trump have very high favorable numbers with Republican voters.
In that sense, her team’s latest attack effort makes sense: Much like 2016, lower-polling candidates have to focus on knocking off the number two option before being seen as the only real alternative to the top dog. Haley is hoping to undercut a key premise of the Florida governor’s run: His ability to get things done and his relatively steady, leakless campaign and governor’s office.
On the last point, those close to Haley see more of an opportunity to rebrand DeSantis as a chaos candidate over the past few weeks, as the online Twitter warring between DeSantis and Trump’s camps have continued to heat up, with insults and accusations flying freely.
“Their staff is going after each other nonstop,” a second person close to Haley’s campaign argued. “There’s no discipline, and it’s all very childish — like they’re in a kindergarten food fight.”
Even if she manages to undermine DeSantis, she still has to work to stand out from the current pile-up at third place. But it’s clear she’s caught their attention: The pro-DeSantis Super PAC “Never Back Down” has targeted Haley, despite the fact that she remains polling in single digits.
Room for Disagreement
So far, Haley’s push to tie DeSantis together with Trump doesn’t seem to faze the frontrunner, who seems happy to welcome more candidates into the field to divide his opposition. One reason he might be pleased: Her attacks tie into Trump’s main attacks against the Florida governor: That he’s simply Trump-lite, that his campaign has suffered from sloppy missteps, and that he is ultimately not ready for primetime.