Former Governor Nikki Haley for the win - GulfToday

Former Governor Nikki Haley for the win

Nikki Haley speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel. AP

Nikki Haley speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel. AP

Patricia Murphy, Tribune News Service

It takes a lot to win a presidential debate, even the hot mess that Fox Business aired Wednesday night. But former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has done it twice now, breaking out from the crowded GOP field with clear, clean strikes on the flavor of the moment, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

When Ramaswamy said Wednesday night that he recently joined the social media platform TikTok in order to reach young voters, he said it was all a part of his plan to win the presidential election and eventually “declare our independence from China.” He then went on to talk about his own youth and ambition.

“What do you see? You see a young man who’s in a bit of a hurry? Maybe a little ambitious? Maybe a bit of a know-it-all, it seems at times?” Ramaswamy doesn’t think he knows it all, he assured the audience, and he’ll need the people on stage to advise him when he’s president. And that’s when Haley had enough. “Honestly, every time I hear you speak I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” she said.

The crowd gasped at the statement, but it was obvious that it wasn’t a poll-tested line. Haley very clearly doesn’t like the guy, and she said so. But more importantly, she went on to call TikTok the most dangerous social media platform for kids anywhere. Because of its ownership structure with the Chinese government, she added that China now has access to all 150 million American users’ texts, emails and financial information. And by the way, she pointed out, Ramaswamy used to have a business subsidiary in China. “We can’t trust you,” she said, not once, but twice. “We can’t trust you.” When nice-guy US Sen. Tim Scott went after Haley, she shut him down, too, with a “Bring it, Tim.” He didn’t bring it. Other candidates had memorable lines in the debate, including Vice President Mike Pence, who for some reason told us all that he’s been sleeping with his wife for 38 years. And Scott mixed it up with Ramaswamy over China, too. But no others combined a worried mom’s opinion of social media, along with American foreign policy and the sheer annoyance of having to work with someone you just can’t stand, as Haley had.

Beyond her newsmaking debate performances, Haley has also been quietly doing the work of running for president that has put her in a place where it’s time to start thinking of her, not Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as the Republican best positioned to be the alternative to Donald Trump in 2024. In case GOP voters ever decide that their best chance to defeat President Joe Biden isn’t a once-defeated, quadruple-indicted 77-year-old man with an anger management problem and history of sexual and financial misconduct, now they have a viable alternative.

Haley was the first Republican to announce her 2024 candidacy for the White House, ahead even of Trump. While other candidates seemed to be gauging their chances of success with Trump in or out of the race, she didn’t wait to find out. Since then, a Haley campaign aide said she’s been following an early-state strategy of “Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, rinse, repeat,” knowing the first three contests will make or break all candidates but Trump.

Doing nearly 100 events in those states has put Haley, not DeSantis or Ramaswamy, in second place in New Hampshire and South Carolina polls behind Trump. And it also seems to have made her more ready to jump in on debate questions that GOP voters care about, such as immigration, abortion and federal spending.

Speaking of spending, Haley’s burn rate, meaning the amount her campaign spends compared with how much it is raising, is helped immensely by her habit of flying on commercial flights like the rest of us while candidates such as DeSantis have chartered private jets to get to campaign events. You’ll also typically find her staying in Hampton Inns and Holiday Inns for campaign trips while her donors upgrade themselves to fancier digs on the road. It’s a small thing, but it tells you which campaigns are positioning themselves to go the distance while others could spend themselves out of the race before it even gets going.

If you’re wondering who Trump is most worried about after last night, look to whom he attacked first. Moments after the debate ended, the Trump campaign blasted out a statement headlined, “The Real Nikki Haley.” It alleged that Hillary Clinton is “an inspiration” to Haley and correctly noted that Haley had “flip flopped” on Trump. “I would not run if President Trump ran, and I would talk to him about it,” she told The Associated Press’ Meg Kinnard in 2021. But two years later, with Trump’s legal troubles piling up and GOP donors looking for an off ramp, she changed her mind and got in. If breaking a promise to Trump is the biggest strike against her, that’s something the anyone-but-Trump Republican voters clearly won’t care about.

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