5 questions for the winnowing GOP field

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The dwindling number of 2024 GOP primary candidates is raising fresh questions about the race as the Iowa caucuses fast approach.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) announced Sunday he was suspending his campaign, marking the latest exit from the field as the race to beat former President Trump increasingly looks like a match-up between former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Here are the five biggest questions about the winnowing GOP field:  

Can Haley overtake DeSantis?

One of the most significant questions looming over the field is whether Haley’s momentum — which has only grown in recent months after three strong debate performances — will ultimately be enough to eclipse DeSantis in the 2024 primary.

DeSantis had largely been seen as the chief rival to Trump during much of the primary, but multiple resets, staff layoffs and leadership changes, along with the Florida governor’s inability during the race to narrow the gap against Trump, have raised questions about his viability.  

A RealClearPolitics polling average of Iowa surveys has DeSantis in second behind Trump, with Haley third. But in RCP’s polling averages of New Hampshire and South Carolina surveys, Haley places second, with DeSantis behind her.  

Meanwhile, one poll — an NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey of Iowa respondents released in late October — showed DeSantis and Haley tied for second behind Trump.  

Both campaigns are seeking to prove they’re seeing high donor enthusiasm. After the third GOP debate, DeSantis and Haley each raised more than $1 million within 24 hours.  

Now, political observers are watching with bated breath to see who will prove to be the most competitive Trump alternative.

Will Christie stay in the race?

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has made his criticism of Trump the focal point of his campaign, but polling has shown he’s struggled to make inroads with the GOP electorate, a substantial portion of which is still aligned with Trump.  

The RCP polling average of surveys out of New Hampshire, where Christie has based his campaign, has him in fourth place at 8.5 percent — trailing Trump by double digits, who sits at 46.5 percent. But in RealClearPolitics’s polling averages of Iowa and South Carolina surveys, the former New Jersey governor sits at 3.7 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.

“He’s prosecuting a case that, while I think is correct, most of the party doesn’t want to hear,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye.

It also remains to be seen whether Christie will qualify for the fourth debate next month in Alabama. Should he not, the former New Jersey governor might decide it’s best to bow out to consolidate support around a more viable Trump opponent.

What went wrong with Scott?

Although there were signs over the summer that Scott was enjoying some renewed interest as DeSantis struggled to narrow the gap with Trump, that interest ultimately didn’t translate into support for his bid.

Scott, who largely campaigned on an optimistic and positive message, stayed away from the back-and-forths that occurred between Haley, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Vice President Mike Pence during the first debate, often fading into the background as a result. Though he sought to go more on offense during the second debate, the South Carolina Republican struggled to have any clear breakout moments.  

“Negative attention really sells right now,” explained Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “GOP voters are looking for people to reflect how they feel, which is why Donald Trump is 30 points ahead in the polls because they’re unhappy with the way America is going, and I think Tim’s got a much more of a positive messaging and a happy warrior status, which in a normal campaign might be very appealing, but this is such an unusual time in American politics.”

The fact Scott once again failed to stand out during the third debate in Miami last week — an event the senator almost didn’t qualify for — might have been the final nail in his campaign’s coffin.

What does Ramaswamy do?

Ramaswamy, who launched his candidacy in February as a little-known GOP contender, has drawn extensive coverage since the summer, when he was seen as something of a breakout GOP star. Republicans lauded him as an effective communicator and floated him as a possible vice president or Cabinet pick.

But questions also remain about what Ramaswamy will do in the Republican primary as he, too, finds himself trailing Trump, Haley and DeSantis in early state polling. Ramaswamy has at times staked out foreign policy positions that have made him an easy target for some of his competitors, and his debate performances have also attracted criticism, particularly when he went after Haley’s daughter’s presence on TikTok.

“He has not changed his style of being aggressive and throwing as much mud at the wall to see what’ll stick and then going in that direction,” Bonjean said. “He is somebody that has the resources to continue to run, but he’s not gaining traction.”

Is there any chance of an early state upset against Trump?

All signs are pointing to the increasing possibility Trump will be the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. None of the candidates, including DeSantis or Haley, has been able to overtake Trump in national or early state polling.

But some are still wondering if there’s a chance that one of them could score a surprise victory over the front-runner in one of the early voting states like Iowa or New Hampshire.

Heye and Bonjean agreed Trump looks positioned to be the party’s candidate heading into next fall, even as the former president has been indicted in four separate cases.

Bonjean noted “time’s running out” for donors to decide whether to get behind DeSantis or Haley because the Iowa caucuses are roughly two months away.

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