Tensions are rising between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as she gains ground and seemingly threatens his second-place finish in the Republican presidential primary.
The two campaigns have spent much of the week trading barbs over the prospect of the United States taking in refugees from Gaza, with DeSantis accusing Haley of trying to be “politically correct.” Haley’s campaign responded, accusing the DeSantis campaign of “falsely describing” her stance on the issue.
The super PACs that support them have also struggled in recent days. On Wednesday, the pro-DeSantis PAC Never Back Down released an ad depicting Haley as sympathetic to refugees. Meanwhile, the pro-Haley SFA PAC highlighted reports that DeSantis was losing donors, calling them “desperation.”
The war of words comes as the two fight to be the leading alternative to Trump in the primaries, a spot DeSantis has held in the campaign so far.
“Right now, he doesn’t have a problem with Donald Trump, he has a problem with Nikki Haley,” NewsNation political contributor Chris Stirewalt said on “The Hill” earlier this week. “Nikki Haley is gaining momentum; He’s going to South Carolina to answer his questions, because Nikki Haley and foreign policy… all the foreign policy news helps Nikki Haley. He has to find a way to deal with her.”
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The DeSantis campaign appears to have “dealt” with Haley, at least this week, through an avalanche of attacks on her foreign policy record.
“I think it all comes down to one thing: She’s moving step by step toward becoming the most viable alternative to Trump,” said one Republican strategist. “It may not end that way, but that’s what it seems like, so I hope she accepts a lot more.”
And DeSantis allies are taking advantage of what they say is Haley’s “turnaround” on issues.
“Nikki Haley has a history of weak change on critical issues and, until now, has never had to defend her actions. She has provided an opportunity with her own mistakes to fully expose her record in the face of her rhetoric. She won’t be able to survive that,” said Kristin Davison, chief operating officer of Never Back Down.
The recent tug of war between the candidates is due to the war between Israel and Hamas. declared this month. On Saturday, DeSantis said during a speech that the United States should not take in Palestinian refugees from Gaza and instead asserted that other countries in the region should be responsible.
“If you look at how they behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all anti-Semitic. None of them believe in Israel’s right to exist,” DeSantis said.
The next day, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Haley was asked about DeSantis comments that Palestinians are anti-Semitic. Haley noted that in her experience at the UN, half of Palestinians did not support Hamas, while the other half did.
“There are many people who want to free themselves from this terrorist regime,” he said. “They want to be free of all that. And the United States has always been sympathetic to the fact that civilians can be separated from terrorists. And that’s what we have to do.”
In the same interview, Haley questioned why countries like Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Lebanon do not accept Palestinian refugees.
On Monday, the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down posted a clip of the interview in which she responded to DeSantis’ comments about Palestinians being anti-Semitic, stating that Haley was arguing “in support of bringing refugees from Gaza to the United States.”
And on Tuesday, the PAC released a 30-second TV ad using Haley’s response to DeSantis’ comments about Palestinian anti-Semitism, with the title “Nikki Haley on Gaza Refugees?”
While Haley did not refer to refugees in her comments, Republicans point out that DeSantis’ tactic is a clear play against the party’s hardline conservative base.
“Nikki Haley’s view on foreign policy may be popular and acceptable in a general election, but it is not necessarily one of her strengths in a Republican primary,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
But Haley has still used her experience to hit DeSantis. On Wednesday, Haley responded to a post on President Biden’s funding to help civilians in Gaza and the Bank of the West.
“We did this in 2018 when we eliminated American aid to [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency]. Welcome to the fight,” Haley wrote, referring to her time on the UN’s “Actions > Talk” program.
Haley’s campaign also released an ad titled “Desperate DeSantis.” The ad asks: “Why is Desperate DeSantis attacking Nikki Haley? She is losing to Nikki. And it’s easy to see why.”
In return, the DeSantis campaign criticized Haley’s latest ad as a “distraction.”
“Ron DeSantis is running a serious campaign to challenge Donald Trump for our party’s presidential nomination. “Nikki Haley is clearly executing a traditional Washington, DC caucus plan to move talking heads instead of actual primary voters,” said DeSantis campaign press secretary Bryan Griffin. “Ron DeSantis has been very clear: not a single cent of American taxes to the Gaza Strip, and not a single pro-Hamas refugee on American soil.”
Haley’s allies and supporters point to her recent fundraising numbers and improvement in the polls. A Fox News poll released last week showed Haley trailing DeSantis by just 3 points. The poll’s margin of error was 4.5 points for Republican primary voters.
At the state level, Haley has also seen some improvements. TO Winthrop University Survey Released earlier this month it showed Haley running second behind Trump, 51 percent to 17 percent among Republican primary voters in her home state of South Carolina. DeSantis trailed with 12 percent support. Meanwhile, a USA Today/Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire GOP primary voters showed Trump leading Haley 49 percent to 19 percent. DeSantis came in third with 10 percent.
Still, DeSantis ranks second in most polls. The average of RealClearPolitics polls shows the Florida governor in second place with 12.8 percent support. Haley is in third place with 7.4 percent support.
Supporters of the former ambassador also cite the fundraising as a sign of her rise.
Haley’s campaign reported raising more than $11 million in the third quarter of the year and ended the quarter with $11.6 million in cash on hand. Of that, Haley can use $9.1 million in the primary.
DeSantis’ campaign, along with a political action committee and a joint fundraising account, raised $15 million during the same period. The campaign began the month with $13.5 million in cash on hand, but only $5 million of that amount can be used during the primary.
“Since the announcement, DeSantis insisted that it is a ‘two-man race’ between him and Trump. As his fundraising and poll numbers plummet, he launches false attacks on Nikki because he knows it’s a race between two people: Nikki and Trump,” said Olivia Pérez-Cubas, campaign spokesperson. Haley.
Regardless of who ultimately takes second place, the candidate will have to compete with Trump. The former president has dominated polls and fundraising, showing himself as a political titan in the crowded primaries.
DeSantis donor Dan Eberhart warned that the barrage of attacks between the Haley and DeSantis campaigns could work in Trump’s favor.
“The dispute benefits Trump more than DeSantis or Haley. If they attack each other, they are not attacking him,” Eberhart said. “Candidates rise and fall in the polls throughout a campaign. “They need to keep their eyes on the horse at the front of the group.”
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