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Who Will Face Trump? DeSantis and Haley Position as Top Challengers

By CM Chaney · November 14, 2023

In brief…

  • Trump remains dominant front-runner for GOP nomination despite smaller field
  • Key question is if other contenders can make it competitive race as voting nears
  • Haley has gained from debates but DeSantis won key Iowa endorsement
  • Iowa seen as critical to generating momentum behind Trump alternative
  • Strategists expect fierce DeSantis vs. Haley battle for key second place
Despite a shrinking Republican field, Donald Trump remains the commanding front-runner for the 2024 nomination as voting nears, with DeSantis and Haley battling to emerge as his top challenger.  South Carolina Governor Nikki R. Haley / Wikimedia

With the Iowa caucuses just 9 weeks away, former President Donald Trump remains the dominant front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination despite a shrinking Republican field.

Sen. Tim Scott suspended his campaign on Sunday, two weeks after former Vice President Mike Pence departed the race. Four other lesser-known candidates who did not qualify for the debates have also dropped out recently. However, Trump still holds commanding double-digit leads in early state and national polls.

The key question is whether the smaller field allows another contender to make it a competitive race against Trump as voting nears.

“Nothing’s changed. Trump’s still ahead. And right now he’s on the trajectory to win,” said veteran GOP consultant Dave Carney. He noted Scott’s single-digit support would not dramatically alter dynamics.

Carney said Scott’s exit is “good news for Nikki Haley.” Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump administration ambassador, trails Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place behind Trump. GOP strategist David Kochel said the narrowed field benefits Haley and DeSantis as “Trump alternatives.”

While DeSantis leads Haley nationally, she has tied or topped him in early states. Haley’s rise partly stems from strong debate performances. She recently reserved $10 million in early state ads. “We’re going to keep surging,” Haley said.

But DeSantis got an Iowa boost from the endorsement of popular GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds. He is also courting top evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats ahead of the Iowa caucuses. “DeSantis is making headway with those voters,” said his campaign.

Strategists see Iowa as critical to generating momentum. Trump has a “ticket” to the next contests, but they expect a fierce DeSantis-Haley battle for the other top spots.

Other candidates like Chris Christie and Vivek Ramaswamy lag far behind.

“Trump will win the Iowa caucus on Jan. 15,” said strategist Jimmy Centers. But he said DeSantis or Haley could cement their status as Trump’s chief rival with a strong second place showing. Haley has momentum from the debates, but DeSantis was boosted by Reynolds’ backing, Centers noted.