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Nikki Haley and Tim Scott’s Collision Course
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Nikki Haley and Tim Scott’s Collision Course

Plus: Donald Trump hopes to shut down more GOP debates.

Republican presidential candidates Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott participate in the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted on August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Happy Friday! We were just putting this newsletter to bed when the news broke that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the longest-serving senator in her state’s history, has died at age 90. Our thoughts are with her family.

Up to Speed

  • President Joe Biden lit into his predecessor and leading challenger Donald Trump in a Thursday campaign speech, calling the former president and his “MAGA” movement “a threat to the brick and mortar of our democratic institutions” and to “the character of our nation.” “I never heard a president” talk like Trump does, Biden said from the stage in Tempe, Arizona, “not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency toward our fellow Americans, but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”
  • Six Republican candidates for president participated in the second GOP debate Wednesday night at California’s Reagan Presidential Library. The two-hour affair produced some highlights: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took his most direct shots at Trump to date on abortion and government spending, while Sen. Tim Scott pulled a rhetorical knife on his former governor and fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley. For the most part, though, the two-hour event was messy and at times difficult to follow, producing few meaningful policy contrasts among the field. 
  • While the other Republicans sparred in California, Trump was taking the stage at an auto-parts manufacturing plant outside Detroit, Michigan, for one of his signature free-associative rally speeches. The event was meant to bolster Trump’s blue-collar bona fides, although its purported connection to the ongoing United Auto Workers’ strike was garbled—Trump gave his speech at a non-union business with only a smattering of union workers in attendance and spent much of his time grumbling that union bosses “always endorse a Democrat.”
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy plans to hold a House vote today on Republicans’ stopgap spending package, forging ahead despite ongoing opposition from a handful of holdouts that guarantee the bill is dead on arrival in the House, to say nothing of the Democrat-controlled Senate, which has moved forward with its own more bipartisan spending package. Barring an act of God, the government will shut down on October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

The Scott-Haley Scuffle Could Shape the GOP Primary

SIMI VALLEY, California—The spat was inorganic, entirely manufactured by Fox Business moderator Dana Perino. Yet the verbal fisticuffs between Nikki Haley and Tim Scott late in the second televised Republican debate exposed a simmering South Carolina rivalry with the potential to influence the GOP presidential nomination.

“We certainly didn’t initiate that,” Haley campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas told reporters immediately afterward. “I think it says more about his campaign and him trying to get some traction, quite frankly, than her.”

“He was not afraid to make contrasts. I think that’s what you saw tonight,” Scott campaign spokesman Matt Gorman countered. “He’s going to stand up for what he believes in.”

The prime-time faceoff was roughly three-quarters over when Perino pointedly asked Scott why he deserves the presidency more than Haley, who as South Carolina governor appointed him to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat nearly 11 years ago. Both obliged. 

Scott raised some easily debunked claims about Haley’s tenure as governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—including, of all things, the price of the curtains installed at the American ambassador’s residence in New York. Meanwhile, Haley blamed Scott for Washington dysfunction and trillions of dollars of deficit spending that is hardly his fault.

The squabble, here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, devolved into something of a neighborly shouting match. Perhaps the only interesting moment came when Haley looked across the stage at Scott, smiling, and dared him to “bring it, Tim.” Still, the episode was not insignificant, even with former President Donald Trump dominating the primary.

Haley and Scott have always enjoyed a cordial relationship, Republican insiders in South Carolina tell The Dispatch. Indeed, there’s been little sign a rivalry exists at all since they launched competing White House bids earlier this year. But with Haley and Scott similarly vying to become the consensus alternative to Trump by running as traditional Reagan-era conservatives, their tête-à-tête Wednesday evening could be a preview of things to come—especially in Iowa.

Haley and Scott both hope a strong finish in the January 15 caucuses vaults them over Trump and puts them on a fast track to the 2024 nomination. Only then would the South Carolina primary, where they would compete for the same home turf, become relevant. But whether they cancel each other out—or one sidelines the other—could go a long way toward determining whether any of the former president’s primary opponents can chip away at his big lead and mount a campaign capable of upending him. 

For now, Haley appears to have the momentum, movement initially sparked after a standout performance at the first debate in Milwaukee in late August. She has surpassed Scott in national polls and early state surveys, and generally seems to have hit her stride as a presidential contender. Scott, meanwhile, has struggled to find his footing months after a solid launch. These were all points the Haley campaign has been emphasizing since the conclusion of the second debate.

“She’s resonating in early polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, she’s consistently second now,” Perez-Cubas said. “The rubber’s hitting the road right now. I think the field is going to consolidate; it’s already consolidating a little bit, it’s going to continue to do that—she’s going to continue to rise.”

Trump to RNC: ‘They Have to Stop the Debates’

The next Republican primary debate won’t take place until November, but one prominent Republican has apparently already seen enough.

Former President Donald Trump, who has not deigned to appear at either of the first two GOP debates, is calling for the Republican National Committee to cancel the rest of the slate, claiming his polling lead is big enough that additional voter scrutiny of the race’s other candidates is pointless.

“They have to stop the debates,” Trump told the Daily Caller in an interview Thursday. “Because it is just bad for the Republican Party. They are not going anywhere. There is not going to be a breakout candidate.”

Trump adviser Chris LaCivita went further in a post-debate statement: “The RNC should immediately put an end to any further primary debates so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White House.”

And during his Michigan speech Wednesday night, Trump went out of his way to let even more air out of his competitors’ tires, dismissing them as “job candidates” for posts in his eventual second administration and suggesting he was unlikely to make any of them his vice presidential pick.

As late as Wednesday, RNC officials were expressing hope that Trump would eventually show up to debate. “Well, we have more debates coming up—we really hope he’ll join us,” RNC national spokesperson Madison Gesiotto Gilbert told CBS News before the debate. “It’s a great opportunity for us as a party to show that contrasting vision of what we as Republicans have to offer to Americans that are unhappy with the way things have been going with Biden for two and a half years.”

The RNC did not respond to a request for comment. But one RNC member tells The Dispatch the former president’s demand isn’t going to be treated seriously. “Hell no to canceling the debates,” this individual says. “I think it’s all Trump’s natural bluster.”

It’s true that Trump’s polling lead has only continued to grow in recent weeks, and Wednesday’s debate—a chaotic proceeding with too many candidates, poor moderation, and a bevy of oddly off-topic questions—is unlikely to do much to move the needle on its own.

And it’s also true that, if Trump does emerge from the presidential primary the victor, he’ll go into the general election against Joe Biden in worse shape than if he’d run unopposed. It’s a political truism that messy primaries hurt their victors; it’s one reason incumbents enjoy a significant advantage in American politics.

And Biden has already been more than happy to turn Trump’s rivals’ words against him. The president tweeted a video Thursday of Ron DeSantis’ most strident Trump critique from the night before: “Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt. That set the stage for the inflation we have now.”

But Trump, while the heavy favorite as things stand now, also overstates the degree to which the primary cake is already baked. A CBS News/YouGov poll this week found that only 20 percent of Republican voters in Iowa were considering only Trump for their vote, while 48 percent were considering both Trump and other candidates, and 31 percent weren’t considering him at all. In New Hampshire, 23 percent were locked on the former president, with 43 percent considering him among other options, and 34 percent not considering him at all.

Besides, since when does Trump trust public opinion polls, which he has routinely dismissed throughout his political career? “I’m not losing, because those are fake polls,” he told Fox’s Chris Wallace ahead of the 2020 election. “They were fake in 2016 and now they’re even more fake.”

When asked about this, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung told The Dispatch that, “Voters are going to nominate President Trump. There is no disputing that. He will be the nominee and he will go on to crush Crooked Joe Biden.”

A strategist involved with a rival GOP campaign told The Dispatch he’s “honestly surprised” Trump didn’t call for the debates to be canceled sooner.

“Any time Trump’s rivals get a chance to be in front of millions of Americans, it is a problem for the former president,” the strategist said. “The field should be requesting more debates.”

Still, only 9.3 million people tuned into the latest debate, Fox News said Thursday, down from 13 million viewers for the first production. It was the lowest viewership for any Republican debate since 2015.

Notable and Quotable

“Crooked Joe Biden is back like a wretched old vulture trying to finish off his prey—can you believe it? I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

—Donald Trump during his speech to auto workers in Detroit, September 27, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.