Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina are trading China-laced smackdowns in their bruising battle to become the clear alternative to former President Donald Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential race.
The China threat has emerged as a top campaign issue, and the candidates have looked to harness simmering fears over the economic and national security challenges presented by the Asian giant.
Concerned his bid is losing steam, Mr. DeSantis and his allies have turned their fire against the rising Ms. Haley. The Haley world is firing back, saying Team DeSantis is getting so desperate that her rival has resorted to lies.
The pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC is running an ad accusing Ms. Haley of paving the way as governor for a Chinese company that supplies “materials from the Red Army” to acquire land free of charge close to a military base in South Carolina.
“Gov. Nikki Haley helped the Chinese company set up shop 5 miles from our base, on land she gave them where they fly China’s flag, serve China’s interests,” the narrator says. “China’s eyes and ears dangerously close, too dangerous to lead.”
The criticism also hits the foreign policy experience of Ms. Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration.
“Every governor running for president tried to recruit Chinese businesses to their state. Nikki Haley did it 10 years ago,” the campaign said in a statement. “Ron DeSantis is aggressively recruiting Chinese companies now. The facts are clear. DeSantis is lying about his record because he’s losing. That’s sad.”
China looms as a top foreign policy issue as the communist country competes with the U.S. for global military and economic superiority. President Trump’s aggressive stance on the trade imbalance and China’s theft of American intellectual property have elevated the competition to Republican voters’ forefront.
China makes for a good political boogeyman, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“It may be a safer issue for someone to take a strong stance on politically than, say, either with the wars in Ukraine and Israel,” Mr. Smith said. “Being tough on China is hypothetical, and you don’t have to live with any major consequences right now. It is an issue where you can demonstrate your toughness and foreign policy bona fides without having to weigh in on the morass of an actual shooting war where you have changes on the battlefield that can happen very quickly.”
The China-infused attacks also underscore the shifting dynamics of the Republican race.
“That DeSantis is attacking Haley means his team knows she is gaining ground, which, despite the online apologists, means this is not a media creation but a real thing,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson said in a recent email blast.
Mr. Trump came in at a whopping 43%, according to the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll.
Ms. Haley is running second in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire but 30 points behind Mr. Trump. She has hardened her attacks against Mr. Trump, too. She warns that Mr. Trump’s take-no-prisoners style is too radioactive to win.
“We cannot have four years of chaos, vendettas and drama,” Ms. Haley said over the weekend. “We can’t afford to go down that road — not now.
“Eight years ago, it was good to have a leader who broke things, but right now, we need a leader who also puts things back together,” she said. “America needs a captain who will steady the ship, not capsize it, and Republicans need a candidate who can actually win.”
The field, meanwhile, is shrinking.
Former Vice President Mike Pence became the first major contender to suspend his campaign. Lesser-known White House hopefuls Perry Johnson and Larry Elder also dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. Trump.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and biotech millionaire Vivek Ramaswamy have been fading in polls, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is betting a win in New Hampshire will springboard him into contention.
Mr. Trump continues to dominate the race, leading by a considerable margin in the polls and winning the dash for cash. While running circles around his rivals, Mr. Trump declares the race over.
The latest Iowa poll shows that 65% of likely Republican caucusgoers think Mr. Trump will defeat President Biden next year.
“The only way to change the dynamics in the race that help Trump is for the field to clear and DeSantis and Haley to be the clear alternatives without having to jockey with others in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Mr. Erickson said. “It really is remarkable how everyone claiming they can and should beat Trump help him by staying in.”
Mr. Trump’s biggest obstacle to the nomination could be the courts. He has been charged with 90 felonies in cases stemming from hush money payments to an adult-film actress, the mishandling of classified information and attempting to interfere with the results of the 2020 election.
Several of the people close to Mr. Trump who championed his stolen election claims — including lawyers Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis — have taken plea deals to avoid prison time and agreed to testify for the prosecution.
Mr. Christie said this week that the walls are closing in on Mr. Trump.
“It’s done. He is going to be convicted. It’s over,” he said on MSNBC.