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Opinion: The best way to keep Trump off the ballot

Opinion by Geoff Duncan

(CNN) — The stars continue to align for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s quest to emerge as the most viable alternative to former President Donald Trump in the Republican presidential race. At the start of December — the last full month of campaigning before votes begin to be cast — the former United Nations ambassador has been buoyed by a string of positive developments, including this week’s endorsement by the deep-pocketed political network affiliated with Charles Koch. With the clock ticking, the time is now for others who want the GOP to move past the Trump era to follow suit and consolidate their support around her.

The case for Haley goes beyond any one event but is rather made by an accumulation of factors that have fueled her momentum. To start, there have been the matters within her control. Since entering the race in February as the first challenger to the disgraced former president, Haley has executed a largely error-free campaign operation. Running for president is no easy feat, and Haley and her team deserve credit for their efforts to date.

Fundraising is one of the key barometers of health for a candidate, and Haley has raised money at a healthy clip — $11 million in the third quarter of 2023 — while also spending resources wisely. While the figure is well short of the $45 million third-quarter haul from the Trump campaign, Haley’s camp had more than $9.1 million in cash on hand for the primary, more than the $5 million available to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Haley’s ability to marshal financial resources allowed her to launch a $10 million ad campaign in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, airing this week through Iowa’s Republican caucuses on January 15 and the primary in New Hampshire. The ads represent the largest investment she has made to date, and a significant buy in small states.

Unlike DeSantis, the Haley operation has been free of public drama. Another super PAC smoothly launched this week, this one aimed at helping her win the support of independent voters. The five entrepreneurs behind it include Jonathan Bush, a cousin of former President George W. Bush.

In contrast, DeSantis also has the support of a new political group, Fight Right, Inc., but the venture only came about after the CEO of pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down resigned last week amid reported “rising tensions.” At issue, apparently, were differing opinions on strategy.

The damaging headlines from DeSantis-affiliated outside entities about questionable spending and internal strife, amid Haley’s rise, continue to create unhelpful distractions. Initially billed as DeSantis’ secret weapon, Never Back Down burned through $34 million during the summer months, a time when the Florida governor slid from being the clear second-place challenger to Trump to the middle of the pack. The vast financial resources of Never Back Down, nearly $100 million at the last public reporting period in June, far outpaced those of any other candidate, including Trump, but haven’t translated to rising support in the polls.

Even more important than the mechanics of Haley’s campaign, however, have been her debate performances. The media widely declared her the winner of all three Republican primary debates, which Trump skipped. The debate stage represents one of the few opportunities to upend the trajectory of the race. Following the third debate in early November, a 538/Washington Post/Ipsos poll of potential Republican primary voters showed a plurality (34%) saying Haley won, with DeSantis a distant second (23%).

This momentum has translated to a rise in her overall poll numbers. In the most recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll, Haley jumped 10 points from the previous survey to tie DeSantis for second place at 16%. (Both trail Trump by 27 points.) In New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation primary is scheduled for January 23, Haley has moved into a clear second place, sitting at 20% in a recent CNN/University of New Hampshire survey, 11 points higher than DeSantis and 22 points behind Trump.

Finally, there have been external factors, that have played to Haley’s strengths as a former UN ambassador. As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to unfold, the aforementioned CNN poll showed the percentage of Republican voters listing foreign policy among their three most important issues more than doubled from 28% in September to 57% in November.

Of course, there is still the Trump factor. The 45th president remains the dominant force in Republican politics and his strong poll numbers have been unaffected by his 91 felony counts in four separate jurisdictions.

But Haley’s surge could capitalize on his vulnerabilities. While the public has consistently expressed concern over President Joe Biden’s age (71% of registered voters described the incumbent as too old to be an effective president in a recent New York Times/Siena College survey), the 77-year old Trump has also raised eyebrows of late with some of his recent slip-ups. On the trail, Trump has confused Biden with former President Barack Obama and claimed that Biden could “plunge the world into World War II” — which ended nearly eight decades ago.

Haley has sharpened her attacks on Trump, asserting that “chaos follows him.” She has also accused him of being “incredibly reckless with our national security.”

But above all else, Haley’s best hope to seize the nomination is the winnowing number of contenders. In 2016, the sprawling number of candidates played into Trump’s hand. During the fourth GOP primary debate eight years ago, there were12 candidates on the stage, including four in the so-called “undercard.” Eight years later, there will be no more than four in next week’s fourth contest in Alabama.

A narrowing field is Trump’s worst nightmare. Haley is not perfect — no candidate is — but right now she is the best hope for anyone seeking to prevent another Trump nomination or a Biden second term.

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