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Trump’s GOP rivals are spending more time and money fighting each other than the former president

By Eric Bradner, Daniel Strauss, David Wright and Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — Time is running out for the Republican presidential contenders vying to supplant Donald Trump as the party’s 2024 standard-bearer.

A new poll released Sunday showed Nikki Haley gaining serious ground on the former president in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation-primary next month. But that night in Altoona, Iowa, where she was kicking off a five-day state swing, the former South Carolina governor was seething about the television ads aired by groups backing another rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I have not talked negatively about anybody,” she told the crowd at the Fireside Grill. “But if you’ve got to lie to win, you don’t deserve to win.”

Haley lit into DeSantis’ opposition to offshore drilling as governor and his votes to raise the debt ceiling as a congressman. She kept up her criticism of DeSantis on Monday, making clear that her comments weren’t a one-off but a new addition to her stump speech.

“If you punch me, I punch back,” she said in the central Iowa city of Nevada. “Ron DeSantis has lied in every one of his commercials.”

The new attacks on DeSantis were the latest chapter in the GOP’s race-within-a-race. With the Iowa caucuses less than four weeks away and Trump the dominant front-runner in national and early state polls, his rivals are battling to emerge as the party’s lone alternative to the former president and consolidate the support of Republican voters and donors who are ready to move on from him.

But instead of taking on Trump, his opponents have spent the past three days – at campaign stops, in interviews and in television advertisements – escalating their attacks on each other.

“We’ve been to this show before. It was 2016,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist, referring to Trump’s first campaign for president.

Polls show each of Trump’s rivals with different bases of support — DeSantis is strongest in Iowa; Haley has gained more traction in New Hampshire, where former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also built a following.

But it’s not clear that any of them can do what Trump’s primary foes in 2016 couldn’t and seriously threaten the former president’s hold on the party.

“I think the window has all but closed for a Trump alternative at this point,” said Republican strategist Gregg Keller, the former American Conservative Union executive director.

Obstacles abound

The GOP field has already shrunk, with former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott among the candidates to drop out. But there are no signs of Haley, DeSantis, Christie or entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the four who qualified for the most recent GOP presidential primary debate, exiting the race before votes are cast.

“It’s difficult to reach that decision where you don’t find that your candidacy is viable and you throw in with somebody else,” Merrill said. “Everyone has a theory of the case of this race right now.”

Even if a Trump rival can deliver a stunner in one of the early voting states, the Republican primary is structured in a way that, many GOP officials and strategists argue, will benefit the former president as the race reaches Super Tuesday in March and his unmovable base pays off in states with winner-take-all delegate contests.

That’s why Jennifer Horn, the former New Hampshire Republican Party chair and a Trump critic, said beating the former president is “just not going to happen.”

“We’re talking about the Republican base, the Republican primary voters,” Horn said. “We’re not talking about general election voters, we’re not talking about independents, and we know that consistently right up till today there’s about 33% of Republican voters who are not going to bend, period. No matter what.”

The failure to consolidate the anti-Trump vote in a way that could have seriously upended the GOP race might be best exemplified by the split between the governors of the first two states to vote: Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed DeSantis; New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu endorsed Haley last week.

Susie Wiles, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign, told reporters Saturday in New Hampshire that neither governor’s endorsement will alter the race’s trajectory.

“Just like we didn’t see Kim Reynolds move the needle in Iowa, we don’t see Chris Sununu moving it here,” Wiles said.

The Haley veepstakes complaints

DeSantis and his allies, unable as yet to convince Republicans that the Florida governor is the singular threat to Trump, have lately tried to undermine Haley’s bid by claiming she is running to become vice president.

Trump in an interview Friday insisted he would be “unlikely” to pick his former United Nations ambassador as a potential ticket mate, though he also said, “I’ve always gotten along with Nikki.” Seizing on the remarks, DeSantis that afternoon challenged Trump to tell his supporters “that under no circumstances will he select Nikki Haley to be his running mate.” He also said that Haley, who has repeatedly insisted she doesn’t “play for second,” should be more clear about whether she would take the job.

“She will not answer directly and she owes you an answer this: Will she accept a vice presidential nomination from Donald Trump?” DeSantis said, adding that he would not “under any circumstance” agree to run on a ticket with the former president.

On social media, DeSantis’ campaign has openly embraced conspiracy theories that suggest Trump and Haley are somehow already aligned. Christina Pushaw, the director of DeSantis’ rapid response operation, shared with her followers a post by a DeSantis supporter claiming without evidence that Haley was a “Trump operative.” She amplified another post inferring that a pro-Haley super PAC was spending all of its advertising money attacking DeSantis on air to free up money for Trump to pay his legal expenses.

“This is why Trump wants Nikki Haley as vice president,” Pushaw said.

Christie has similarly criticized Haley, portraying her as too hesitant to criticize the former president.

“When she hasn’t ruled out being his vice president, I don’t think you could take her as a serious contender against him,” he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Christie’s criticism, which echoes his comments from other interviews and on the campaign trail, represents a marked shift for the former New Jersey governor. At the fourth GOP primary debate earlier this month, he largely avoided attacking Haley.

However, the two have been on a collision course, in part because they’ve hedged their campaigns on the same strategy: using a strong finish in New Hampshire to catapult them past the rest of the Republican field and cement their status as the lone serious Trump challenger.

Christie’s shifting strategy was on display Sunday in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” in which he was asked about a controversy Trump had ignited a day earlier when he claimed undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of the United States.

Christie called Trump “disgusting” and accused him of using racist dog whistles. Then, he pivoted, turning a question about Trump’s comments into an attack on Haley.

“Nikki Haley should be ashamed of herself and she’s part of the problem because she’s enabling him. She’s enabling him by saying to people, ‘It’s OK,’” Christie said. “Let me be really clear: I’m in this race to let people know it’s not OK. It’s not OK for an American president to be saying these things. And she should be ashamed of herself.”

Trump’s comments on border, foreign policy draw fire

DeSantis in Iowa on Monday described Trump’s anti-immigrant comments as problematic but his reason was that they diverted attention from President Joe Biden’s handling of the border crisis.

“To give them an ability, the opposition, an ability to try to make it about something else, I think is just a tactical mistake,” DeSantis said.

Haley, campaigning Monday afternoon in Carroll, Iowa, brought up Trump’s comments in October when he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “not prepared” for Hamas’ October 7 terror attack and praised the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as “very smart.”

“I think that [Trump’s] policies were good,” the former UN ambassador said. “But if you look at what’s happening now, the part that bothers me is our national security is at risk, and what’s he doing? He’s praising dictators.”

She then returned to the topic of the pro-DeSantis groups’ attack ads targeting her.

“When you get into silly season and people get desperate, they’ll say anything,” Haley said. “Ron right now is throwing things against the wall, and nothing is sticking.”

Early state ad wars all but ignore Trump

DeSantis and Haley, and the outside groups supporting them, have spent millions on campaign ads attacking each other – but little targeting the former president, despite his wide lead, AdImpact data shows.

Over the past year, Haley and her allied super PAC have spent about $6.4 million on broadcast TV ads targeting DeSantis. Her network has stepped up its attacks in recent weeks, launching several new spots that criticize and mock the Florida governor.

One ad aired by the pro-Haley super PAC features DeSantis making many of the same mannerisms and hand gestures that Trump regularly makes. “What a phony,” the narrator says, calling the Florida governor “too lame to lead; too weak to win.”

Another ad from the pro-Haley super PAC, released Monday in Iowa, labels DeSantis’ campaign a “dumpster fire” and accuses the Florida governor of “always trying to out-Trump, Trump.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis and a pair of super PACs supporting him have spent about $5.9 million on ads targeting Haley, also ramping up their attacks with the first votes approaching. Fight Right, one of the pro-DeSantis super PACs, has produced five ads since launching late last month, all of them criticizing the former South Carolina governor, comparing her to Hillary Clinton and accusing her of flip-flopping on key issues.

“Don’t believe a thing Nikki Haley says. She doesn’t,” the narrator says in one Fight Right spot that contrasts her positions as a 2024 candidate with statements Haley previously made.

Neither candidate’s campaign nor their allies have devoted significant funds to attacking Trump.

DeSantis and his allies have spent about $381,000 so far on ads targeting Trump. The campaign is up with a new ad, which features a former supporter explaining his decision to back DeSantis. But the ad — launched earlier this month, and relatively mild by political advertising standards — represents the first explicit effort by the governor’s campaign to target Trump on the airwaves.

Never Back Down, DeSantis’ other allied super PAC, also aired a pair of ads over the summer knocking Trump for his attacks on Reynolds and Sununu. Haley, meanwhile, has aired a few spots with light criticism, but none that primarily target the former president.

Christie’s team, with far fewer resources than DeSantis or Haley, has spent comparatively little overall on advertising. Still, he and his allies have aired the most explicitly anti-Trump advertising out of the current GOP field — about $480,000 worth, according to AdImpact data.

One new ad aired by Christie’s campaign includes swipes at all three of the top-polling Republican candidates. A narrator repeats Haley’s and DeSantis’ swipes against each other, before saying: “There’s only one candidate trying to stop Trump. Chris Christie is the only one who can beat Trump because he’s the only one trying to beat Trump.”

Trump and his allied super PAC, MAGA Inc., meanwhile, have spent about $11.8 million on broadcast TV ads attacking DeSantis since the Florida governor entered the race. However, those ads — which reflected the Trump campaign’s early view of DeSantis as a serious threat — have ebbed in recent months.

And Trump’s more recent ads ignore his primary rivals and largely feature messages that seem aimed at the general electorate.

CNN’s Ebony Davis and Aaron Pellish contributed to this report.

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