Haley looks like top challenger to Trump ahead of latest GOP debate, with a Social Security plan that’s ‘differentiating’ her

As the third Republican presidential debate nears, Nikki Haley’s chances of becoming the party’s 2024 nominee have been improving, with betting markets tracked by RealClearPolitics putting them at 9% to 11% over the past week.

That sets her just ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the first time this year, as the Florida governor’s chances have dropped to 8% or 9%, according to RCP’s data. She’s still still far behind frontrunner Donald Trump, who is above 70% and again plans to skip debating his rivals.

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Haley is also the distant No. 2 behind Trump in polls for the key primary state of New Hampshire, getting 15% support vs. his 47%, according to an average of surveys from RCP. In addition, she tied for second with DeSantis at 16% in a recent poll in Iowa, another crucial state, though DeSantis still has an edge over her in RCP’s average for Iowa polls.

The former South Carolina governor has been on the rise in part due to her strong showings at the GOP presidential primary’s debates in August and September, according to Debbie Walsh, director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“She clearly had a very strong debate performance in both the first and the second debates, and in my humble opinion, looked like the adult in the room through much of that,” Walsh said.

Women candidates face stereotypes about not being tough enough but Haley has managed to come across as sufficiently formidable, especially as a fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, “came after her in a pretty aggressive way” during the second debate, the Rutgers expert said.

“She held her own, and I think she’ll have to do that again,” Walsh told MarketWatch. She said it’s paying off for Haley that she served as Trump’s ambassador to the U.N. after her stint as governor, as she’s now showing her foreign-policy expertise in the debates and standing up to rivals who challenge her in that area.

But Walsh argued that Haley is striking a balance as well, such as in talking about being a wife and mother or in bringing up areas where Americans can find agreement when she talks about abortion. Democrats have seized on abortion rights as a campaign issue since the Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade, and that approach found traction with voters in last year’s midterm elections.

“She says, ‘I’m pro-life,’ but she also says, ‘Can’t we talk about some places where we can agree, like birth control,’” Walsh said, adding that Democratic attacks about being “too extreme” have dogged many GOP politicians. “She’s trying to keep that from being the label that can be used on her. I don’t know that it’s going to work.”

The latest debate, which is due to take place at 8 p.m. Eastern Wednesday in Miami, will feature fewer candidates on the stage than the prior clashes, as the Republican National Committee has stepped up its qualifying requirements and a few candidates, most notably former Vice President Mike Pence, have dropped out of the primary. Besides DeSantis and Haley, the only woman in the race, the other expected participants on Wednesday night are Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Trump’s lead over his GOP rivals has been stable for months, but if somehow his advantage isn’t insurmountable, Haley appears “best positioned to challenge him,” said Brian Gardner,  Stifel’s chief Washington policy analyst, in a note. But he added that she “has lots of ground to make up and it is questionable that there are enough non-Trump votes within the GOP for her to catch him.”

One GOP strategist, Saul Anuzis, pushed back on the question of whether Haley or DeSantis is Trump’s biggest challenger, saying it’s still early in the primary and the main question is who’s a viable alternative to the former president.

“I still think that most of these guys are in the race with the idea that something might happen to Trump, where he would drop out for whatever reason, whether it’s legal, whether it’s health, whether it’s something else,” said Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

Related: Trump indicted for fourth time, drawing charges in Georgia election-interference case

He praised Haley’s proposal for Social Security, which calls for raising the retirement age but only for younger people just entering the system. Trump and President Joe Biden have steered clear of calling for such changes, while DeSantis has expressed some agreement with Haley, saying changes for younger people might be needed to keep Social Security viable.

“She’s being very realistic,” Anuzis said. “Everybody agrees you have to reform Social Security and Medicare, and the issue is how and where do you start?”

“You constantly hear about people saying anybody who’s 55 or older, or 50 or older, has already paid into the system and there shouldn’t be any changes for them,” he added. “But people who are under 50 — there’s a lot of different options that are available to deal with Social Security and Medicare. So I think that she’s just being honest. She’s differentiating herself.”

Haley’s campaign, which didn’t offer responses to MarketWatch’s questions, also has pushed other proposals aimed at Americans’ wallets, such as eliminating the federal gasoline tax, or cutting government spending and boosting drilling for oil and gas to whip inflation.

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