A furious scramble for second place is underway in the crowded Republican primary contest, with candidates vying for an opportunity to directly take on front-runner Donald Trump. The position, once held by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, now appears to be more of a free-for-all.
Since the 2024 presidential race began, the second-place spot in GOP primary polling has been a coveted one. The conventional wisdom was that for candidates not named Trump, one of their earliest objectives would be to become the consensus alternative to the former president. Before and in the early days of DeSantis’ campaign, it seemed like he would be that candidate. The Florida governor enjoyed a robust campaign war chest and early polling showed him trailing only Trump, albeit by a wide margin.
But more recently, DeSantis’s star has begun to fade. He was more muted compared with other rivals at last month’s first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, and he’s now polling at similar levels to several other non-Trump contenders. A new CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of likely GOP primary voters in the Granite State found a close contest for second place between entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and DeSantis.
With the second GOP debate only days away, Haley has been gaining ground with Republican moderates, according to surveys in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and is increasingly trying to distinguish herself on both fiscal and foreign policy.
“We need a leader who will stand up to Democrats and Republicans,” the former governor said Friday as she unveiled her economic policy in an address at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “Republicans talk a big game, but they’re nearly as reckless as the Democrats on spending.”
Her strong showing at the Milwaukee debate, particularly the exchanges with Ramaswamy, gained her the admiration of voters like Tom Boyer, who came to see her speak Friday.
“I appreciated what she said and agreed with her wholeheartedly,” Boyer told CNN. “I like the fact that she’s in favor of supporting Ukraine, and some of her Republican opponents are not. I like her economic plan. I like her reasoning.”
Boyer, a longtime New Jersey resident who retired to New Hampshire, said he also was drawn to Christie’s candidacy but believes Haley has a better path to victory.
“If the problems Trump is having bring him down a little bit, I like her more than any of the other candidates,” Boyer said.
The GOP race will also be driven by voters like Thalia Floras, who said she intends to shed her Democratic Party registration next week in New Hampshire and become an undeclared voter. She said she ultimately intends to take part in the Republican primary and is considering Haley, Christie or former Texas Rep. Will Hurd. She said her chief goal was to find the strongest contender against Trump.
“Absolutely,” she said. “I will support the candidate that could potentially slow or stop Trump.”
It’s not unheard of for the overarching theme of a presidential primary to be about one consistent front-runner and a revolving door of alternatives. In the 2012 cycle, Mitt Romney enjoyed front-runner billing but his top rival changed throughout the primary. At one point, it was Newt Gingrich. At another point, it seemed like Rick Perry was Romney’s biggest threat. At yet another point, it was Rick Santorum. This cycle is shaping up to be similar to that, said Kyle Plotkin, a veteran Republican campaign strategist.
“Everyone’s going to get a second look to be second place,” Plotkin said.
For much of the rest of the field, that’s a big part of the gamble in running against Trump in this primary. Despite a bevy of indictments and a refusal to participate in the first two Republican presidential debates, Trump’s polling lead over the rest of the field has only grown and he’s enjoyed fundraising windfalls. Whether they admit it or not, other campaigns are betting that some unforeseen event will knock the former president’s momentum, said David Urban, a former senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign and a CNN contributor.
“I think everyone’s kind of rowing their boat in that direction, hoping there will be a stumble at some point. That somehow, in some place along the way, the former president stumbles and he then gets knocked off the horse and then somebody else is next. Positioning for being next is the best thing you can hope for at this point,” Urban said. “Nobody’s closing the gap. The gap has not been closed. And so since that gap has not been closed, the thesis on ‘I’m going to run to be first’ -well, running to be first ain’t working. It’s not working. It’s not playing out. So running to be second seems to be the next best thing. And that’s all you can do.”
So far, it isn’t clear what that stumble would be. Trump has been seemingly impervious to the consequences of the tactical slip-ups the other candidates have experienced. That’s left the debates as key moments to break through for the rest of the field, argued Republican strategist Brett Doster.
“I think that the DeSantis campaign has made every rookie mistake you possibly could make for a presidential candidate, but he’s still the one to beat among the non-Trump candidates because of the money factor,” Doster said. “I think this upcoming debate is going to be interesting because it looks like there may be a smaller field. And I think it’s going to be a decisive moment for either (former Vice President Mike) Pence or Vivek or Nikki Haley to make their move.”