Nikki Haley's 2024 campaign has growing popularity -- and several recent 'stumbles,' experts say

"Everyone's paying attention now," said one observer.

January 14, 2024, 7:49 PM

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has seen her 2024 Republican primary standing rise in polling in recent months, particularly after well-received debate performances while running what some other conservatives described as a largely error-free campaign.

But in the weeks leading up to Iowa's caucuses on Monday, Haley has had to address a string of "stumbles" on the trail, as one operative said.

Those include not initially citing slavery as a cause of the Civil War -- stirring days of headlines and follow-up answers -- and saying both that New Hampshire voters would "correct" Iowa's caucuses (taken as a local slight) and that candidates change their personalities in different states.

She has also faced scrutiny for how she balances criticism of former President Donald Trump, saying as recently as last week that he "will have to answer" for what happened on Jan. 6., with vows to pardon him, if needed, so the country can move "forward."

At CNN's debate on Tuesday, rival Ron DeSantis hammered her over the headlines. She exhibited "ballistic podiatry," he said -- fancy wording for shooting herself in the foot.

Haley repeatedly fired back by calling out a website set up, she said, to highlight DeSantis' lies.

On the eve of the first votes being cast in the Republican nominating race, after months of campaigning, it's unclear if Haley's recent controversies are affecting her standing in the race.

"I don't really follow a lot of news or current events that closely," said Kurt Kreuger of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who is leaning toward caucusing for entrepreneur and commentator Vivek Ramaswamy. Kreuger recently told ABC News that he's "not paying close attention" to events like the primary debates.

PHOTO: Former UN ambassador and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign town hall event at Wentworth by the Sea Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire on January 2, 2024.
Former UN ambassador and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign town hall event at Wentworth by the Sea Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire on January 2, 2024.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

"I just feel like everybody's trying to get the 'gotcha' moments. I just think there's so much at stake that we just have to get beyond that," added Debbie Neumeyer of Robins, Iowa, who said she is caucusing for Haley.

Those attitudes haven't stopped other challengers from using Haley's comments to try to tear her down.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who ended his own presidential campaign last week, excoriated her for being "unwilling to offend anyone." Right before exiting the race, Christie was heard on a hot mic telling someone that Haley was going to get "smoked" and was "not up to this."

She and DeSantis have narrowed in on each other since the fall as the biggest Trump alternatives -- but Trump remains the overwhelming front-runner and, according to polling, could soon start winning double-digit victories.

DeSantis' campaign has run ads in Iowa over Haley's comments about New Hampshire's primary correcting the caucus results, suggesting she insulted Iowa Republicans.

And Trump tore into her Civil War comment, saying slavery was the "obvious answer" rather than "three paragraphs of b-------" and that Iowa voters "don't have to be corrected."

PHOTO: Former US ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign stop at Mickey's Irish Pub in Waukee, Iowa, on January 9, 2024.
Former US ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign stop at Mickey's Irish Pub in Waukee, Iowa, on January 9, 2024.
Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking with ABC News, some Republican strategists estimated that the moments, even cumulatively, would be well short of campaign-enders though they did run the risk of taking the sheen off of Haley's campaign as a growing Trump challenger.

"Whatever momentum she had, I think it kind of slowed it down. Now, look, I still think at the end of the day, the people that are looking for an alternative to Trump, she's an attractive member of that list," said Chip Saltsman, who worked on former Vice President Mike Pence's now-ended 2024 campaign.

But "these gaffes give some of those people pause, and the bumps in the road give some people pause to kind of say, 'Well, maybe she's not the right one,'" Saltsman said.

"There's still a lot of people out there that if you ask them right now, they say, 'Hey, I think I like this person but who knows?'" he added. "And you would rather have a mistake-free last three weeks, Nikki's had a mistake-filled three weeks."

New Hampshire GOP strategist Mike Dennehy echoed that: "This is the first time she's ever been challenged in a national campaign, and she's showing some stumbles. So, it is not going to drive a stake through the heart of her campaign, but she can't afford many more of these stumbles. Everyone's paying attention now."

PHOTO: Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, right and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, pointing at each other during the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 10, 2024.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, right and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, pointing at each other during the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 10, 2024.
Andrew Harnik/AP

For her part, Haley is trying to move on. (Her campaign did not comment for this story.)

She cast her temporary oversight of slavery as the cause of the Civil War by suggesting it was so obvious that it didn't even need mentioning. And she laughed off her comment about correcting Iowa's results as a joke among early voting states, citing her past governorship of one of them.

"Not any single person I've talked to since over the holidays mentioned it," said New Hampshire GOP strategist Dave Carney. "I may be wrong, but I don't think it has much impact at all."

"No one can outwork or is better at retail politics than Nikki Haley," added Connelly-Anne Ragley, a former political strategist in South Carolina who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign.

On the ground, at least, interviews with attendees of a recent Haley campaign event in Cedar Rapids suggested she was handling herself well in the eyes of` potential voters.

"She's very well spoken. She's very firm," said 60-year-old Don Esker. "I was really impressed with her tonight."