How Front-Runners Fail

The holiday season is upon us. Which means that while Americans are recovering from an orgy of overeating and Black Friday shopping, the political world is easing into the next phase of the presidential election: primary crunchtime.

The period between Thanksgiving and the first presidential primaries and caucuses in January and February is typically full of flux and ferment. The contenders sharpen their messages. The campaigns flood Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-going states with additional money and people and ads. So many ads. More voters start paying attention. Watching candidates surge and fizzle, focus and fold, you often can get a sense of how they respond under pressure. And if there’s one thing a president needs to be able to handle, it’s pressure.

In a normal election, these early contests can bring all kinds of surprises. In 2000, John McCain’s maverick run upset George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, jolting the Republican nomination race. In 2004, during the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses that January, a floundering John Kerry loosened up, warmed up and crisped up his message (“The real deal”!) in the Democratic race, crushing the dreams of the anti-establishment darling Howard Dean. (Remember the Dean scream? Good times.) In the 2008 election, Team Obama started working Iowa early and just kept turning the heat up as caucus night approached, driving a stake through Hillary Clinton’s aura of inevitability. And so on.

This time, obviously, the state of play is different. With Donald Trump, the Republican contest includes a de facto incumbent whose dominance looks all but insurmountable. Some players have already left the field. Others need to leave A.S.A.P. (Looking at you, Asa and Doug.)

But this race is not over. In fact, not a single vote has been cast. And for all Mr. Trump’s advantages, he’s lugging around some heavy baggage that gives the primary a tremor of instability.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

He is up to his wattle in criminal indictments, and even if none land him in prison, the grinding stress and his advanced age look to be taking a toll on his mental acuity. Watching his increasingly disjointed rants, one cannot help but think, “Something ain’t right.” He seems as likely as President Biden to suffer a serious health event — maybe more if you factor in all those burgers. As the primaries grind on, any number of developments could convince soft Trump voters that the MAGA king is a bad bet.

All of which is to say that the Republican primary fight remains vital. And as we head into this crucial stretch, it is time for the most promising Trump challengers — who at this point appear to be Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley — to hunker down and show us what they are made of.

Both of these aspiring Trump slayers have the same core aim: to convince primary voters that the former president is no longer the right man for the job — that he is America’s past, while they are its future. Think of it as this year’s version of Obama’s “change” theme.

They are coming at this from dramatically different places. Iowa is make or break for Mr. DeSantis, who has gone all in on the state. This makes it especially unsettling for his team that Ms. Haley has caught up with him there in recent polling. Mr. DeSantis has long benefited from the belief by many in the G.O.P. establishment that he is the party’s most electable option: Trump but competent, as the sales pitch goes. If he places behind both Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley, then limps to a second defeat in New Hampshire — where recent polling shows him in fourth place, at best — that electability argument goes splat.

The next several weeks are basically Mr. DeSantis’s last shot at breaking through, and it’s increasingly hard to see how he does so. He has tried to walk that fine messaging line of presenting himself as the MAGA choice for a new generation. But selling Trump Lite to a base still drunk on the original has proved difficult. More problematic, early signs are that the recent consolidation of the non-MAGA part of the field, especially Senator Tim Scott’s departure, will benefit Ms. Haley more than Mr. DeSantis. Then there’s the cold reality that Meatball Ron is a lousy retail politician, a real handicap in early-voting states, where people take their face-to-face schmoozing with candidates very seriously.

That said, Team DeSantis is determined not to get outworked — which is also something Iowans take very seriously. “In Iowa,” Tom Vilsack, the state’s 40th governor, once observed, “it is not the message; it is the relationship.” In October the campaign announced it was shipping about a third of its Florida-based staff to Iowa until the caucuses. In mid-November, three top players were dispatched: the deputy campaign manager, the national political director and the communications chief, according to Politico. Additional offices are being opened across the state, and more aides are expected to be dispatched in December. He scored the endorsement of Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds. If Mr. DeSantis is smart, he’ll be shaking hands and smooching babies in the state every waking moment between now and caucus night on Jan. 15.

Ms. Haley has sought to strike more of a balance between Iowa and New Hampshire. This makes a certain sense, seeing as how the quirky Granite State, with a large number of independents who vote in the primaries, seems more fertile ground for her brand of politics than does Iowa, whose Republican base is heavy on religious conservatives. (White evangelicals do love them some Trump.) She has been toggling between events in both places, and last month her campaign announced that starting in December, it would be running an additional $10 million in ads across the two states. She recently rolled out a list of 72 endorsements from prominent political and business figures in Iowa. Her campaign has not been scrambling to flood the zone with staff members,à la Team DeSantis, perhaps because it isn’t feeling the heat quite as much.

Ms. Haley is going hard with the message that she is the face of a new generation, unburdened by Trumpian drama and, unlike Mr. DeSantis, able to unite rather than divide Americans to get things done. (Pragmatism has been a central theme in her strong debate showings.) Playing to the coalition of Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents, she is walking a clearer, cleaner path than Mr. DeSantis.

Whether she can get many Republicans to follow her is the billion-dollar question. She too needs to plant herself in Iowa and New Hampshire for the rest of this year and loudly tout her presence there to avoid looking as though she cares less than Mr. DeSantis. (Early state voters are so sensitive.) And she could use a few more breakout moments. She has been a star of the Republican debates, for instance, but she has spent more time carving up Vivek Ramaswamy — which, to be clear, has been glorious to behold — than raising doubts about Mr. Trump or even Mr. DeSantis. In January 2004, Mr. Kerry used a debate to devastating effect against Mr. Dean, confronting him with comments he had made about how he could not prejudge the guilt of Osama bin Laden for Sept. 11. “What in the world were you thinking?” Mr. Kerry asked. Mr. Dean had some lame reply about being “obligated to stand for the rule of law.” Ms. Haley has maybe two debates pre-Iowa to strike a memorable blow. While she has the disadvantage of Mr. Trump not being on the debate stage, she is nimble enough to make the most of lines like “If Donald Trump were here, I would ask him ….”

“Pressure. It changes everything,” observed Al Pacino in the deliciously cheesy horror flick “The Devil’s Advocate.” For Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis, the window for disrupting this race and making their mark is closing soon. ’Tis the season to go big or go home.

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