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Nikki Haley, welcome to Thunderdome

“This is Haley’s first time in the spotlight, and she needs to get over this and take on Trump now,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican Party strategist. “Or else.”

Haley’s rivals have treated her comments on the Civil War as a lifeline for their own dwindling prospects in the race. DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie quickly condemned his response at their own campaign events this week. And Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, spent much of Thursday fielding questions about her remarks, putting her in the position of explaining rather than selling her candidacy.

For nearly a year – from her distant beginnings to her recent rise in the polls – Haley has remained relatively unscathed. His opponents have pointed, to little effect, to his evolving responses on issues such as abortion and transgender rights. But they also spent less money against her. As of Wednesday, Haley had spent $14 million against her on negative advertising, compared to nearly $37 million for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and $19 million for Trump, according to
Rob Pyers, a nonpartisan data analyst
. Trump focused his hammer-type attacks on DeSantis, not Haley. And much of the media attention over the past year has focused on the Florida governor’s campaign missteps and policy proposals.

But that changed Wednesday evening in Berlin, New Hampshire. Haley’s hesitant and convoluted response to a question posed at the town hall – and her subsequent attempts to clarify her comments, later recognizing slavery as a cause of the Civil War after initially refusing to do so – l have been thrust into the spotlight, arguably for the first time during this period. the primary. Within hours, media outlets began digging into her past remarks on the issue, resurfacing an interview she gave in 2010 in which she expressed similar beliefs about the root causes of the civil war.

And for Haley, the time and place mattered greatly. While Trump has built large leads in the other three early primary states — Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina — New Hampshire has become the key battleground in efforts to slow Trump’s momentum. Polls show Haley moving into second place and steadily closing in on Trump ahead of the Jan. 23 primary.

“The response itself doesn’t have to be a huge problem,” said Liam Donovan, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee official. “But the media response tells you the free ride is over and she’s going to get her first taste of adversity.”

The controversy has given special oxygen to Christie, who in recent weeks has questioned whether he will stay in the race. The former New Jersey governor is coming in third in some recent New Hampshire polls, and many prominent Republicans in the Granite State say he could potentially siphon off support that might otherwise go to Haley. Christie has insisted he won’t drop out of the race — he released a direct-to-camera ad this week in which he said so — but the firestorm could give him more incentive to stay.

“The problem for Haley is that her path to the nomination already amounts to an early Triple Lindy, and anything that could stunt her rise — or, perhaps worse, breathe new life into someone like Chris Christie — is something something she can’t afford,” Donovan said.

Haley was already beginning to face a barrage of attacks from her less well-positioned opponents in the days leading up to her comments on the Civil War. DeSantis and Christie highlighted his apparently shifting stance on the issue of transgender medical rights for minors. After a clip of Haley resurfaced earlier this month in June saying that “the law should stay out of this” when it came to minor children seeking gender transition, Haley said the last week to the Christian Broadcasting Network that “there should be federal involvement” in blocking anyone under 18 from undergoing gender reassignment procedures.

In recent weeks, Christie has also hammered Haley on her stance on abortion, accusing her of speaking differently on the subject in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Rival campaign officials have privately expressed frustration with the lack of media oversight of Haley’s policy positions. Haley, for much of her campaign, refused to make herself available to media groups at campaign events, choosing instead to grant occasional one-on-one interviews with select reporters and sit for television spots.

This contrasts with other Republicans in the field. Even Trump, the overwhelming favorite, took questions from major reporters aboard his plane and spoke to the press this fall in front of a New York City courtroom. Following her comments about the Civil War, Haley spoke to reporters Thursday while standing next to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Haley’s campaign presented the controversy as evidence of her increasingly strong position.

“Everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Trump is attacking Nikki for one reason: She’s the only candidate with momentum,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Haley. “It’s clear that it’s become a two-horse race between Nikki and Trump.”

The lasting effect of the controversy and the extent to which it registers with voters is unclear. His remarks came during a quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when, Donovan said, “most normal people have better things to do than follow political news.”

But the lack of other news this week has also focused the media more intently on Haley’s remarks and her attempt to clean them up.

“Republican voters probably don’t pay much attention to media scandals,” said veteran Republican strategist Scott Jennings. “But this one was the first time she ran out of polish.”

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