For most of the 2024 presidential cycle, Nikki Haley has ceded ground in Iowa to Donald J. Trump, who dominates its polls, and to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has made the state central to his hopes of besting the Republican front-runner.
But Ms. Haley, who has focused more energy on the primaries in New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina where she served as governor, is sending strong signals that she still intends to make it a fight.
With just two months to go before the critical first-in-the-nation caucuses, Ms. Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, is starting a series of campaign events Thursday as her battle with Mr. DeSantisto become Mr. Trump’s nearest rival reaches a fever pitch. She will arrive armed with more than 70 new endorsements in the state and plans for a $10 million advertising blitz across Iowa and New Hampshire, seeking to capitalize on the narrowing field and the polls that show her steady rise.
“She is peaking at the right time,” said Chris Cournoyer, a state senator and Ms. Haley’s Iowa state chairwoman. “Right now.”
Yet Mr. DeSantis has had a strong head start in Iowa. He has pursued an all-in strategy in the state for months, building what appears to be a formidable ground game and moving much of his staff to the state in a last-ditch attempt to win the Jan. 15 caucuses. Before the third presidential debate last week in Miami, he landed a major victory when he drew the endorsement of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said there was “too much at stake” to remain neutral in the primary nomination, as Iowa governors typically do.
And then there is Mr. Trump himself. Ms. Haley’s turn toward the state appears to be confirmation of what Mr. DeSantis and others have been signaling from the onset: For another candidate to have a shot, Mr. Trump must be stopped in Iowa first.
As their competition for second place heats up, Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis have been clashing on the debate stage and in mailers, online posts and media appearances. The two have lobbed misleading claims at each other in recent weeks on dealings with Chinese companies and energy. Mr. DeSantis in particular has ramped up the attacks, seeking to use Ms. Haley’s own appeal to a broader coalition of voters against her by casting her as too liberal. The tone of the attacks has also escalated.
He has falsely characterized Ms. Haley’s position on Gazan refugees, and criticized her for saying that social media users should be forbidden from posting anonymously. (On Wednesday, after some online backlash from right-wing media commentators, Ms. Haley clarified on CNBC that she had been referring solely to foreign-based actors.)
In a radio interview on Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis dug up a three-year-old post in which Ms. Haley said that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police should be “personal and painful for everyone.” Mr. DeSantis, who at the time said he was “appalled” by Mr. Floyd’s death, questioned her sentiments, saying “Why does that need to be personal and painful for you or me? We had nothing to do with it.”
Ms. Haley has not humored such strikes with a response, and when asked about criticism from her rivals, she has sought to project strength. “When I’m attacked, I kick back,” she has warned.
They are not the only ones competing for better positioning. Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur and political newcomer who has mostly self-funded his campaign, has made 150 Iowa stops, 34 more than Mr. DeSantis and more than double those by Ms. Haley. He has attempted to make inroads with Indian American voters in the state. And his campaign officials on Wednesday said they would be spending more on advertising and expanding their staff there soon. He released a list of more than 20 Iowa events through next week.
Iowa is a difficult state to survey partly because turnout is difficult to predict and the number of swing voters who show up to caucus can be higher than expected. But a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll released at the end of last month captured Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis tied for second place at 16 percent, far behind Mr. Trump, who pulled in 43 percent support among likely Republican caucusgoers. It has been consistent with her steady rise in other surveys of the early voting states.
Gloria Mazza, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Polk County, which is the largest in the state and includes Des Moines, said Ms. Haley still had plenty of opportunity to catch up to other candidates who have spent more time in the state.
“There are a lot of people undecided,” said Ms. Mazza, who is staying neutral. “There are still people who they won’t even disclose to polls who they are going for.”
Through the early days of the election cycle, Republican voters and elected officials in Iowa said they saw little of Ms. Haley. She was polling in the single digits and lagging behind her rivals on fund-raising, making it difficult to campaign in a rural state that requires more time and money to cover ground. But her campaign has been gradually adding staff and building out her Iowa footprint since the summer. Last month, her Iowa team added two new members: Hooff Cooksey, Governor Reynolds’s campaign manager during her 2018 run, and Troy Bishop, the 2022 field director for Senator Chuck Grassley.
Before the most recent Republican debate in Miami, a group of Iowa farmers and agricultural leaders announced their support for Ms. Haley’s bid, citing her tough talk on China, stances on renewable energy and pledges to repeal government regulations. On Tuesday, she released a slate of more than 70 endorsements from elected officials and community and business leaders.
In interviews, Ms. Cournoyer and some Haley endorsers argued that though much of Mr. Trump’s support in Iowa is unmovable, Ms. Haley had the chance to make up ground with independents and moderates. Bob Brunkhorst, a former state senator and former mayor of Waverly on that list, said her team had been astute about not spending too much early in the cycle and waiting to expand in the state.
“They know how the game is run,” he said, “and when to peak.”
On Monday, Ms. Haley’s campaign announced it would be spending $10 million in television, radio and digital advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire starting in the first week of December — its first investment in advertising of the cycle and an amount so far outpacing the DeSantis campaign in the coming months.
In a press call the next day, Mark Harris, the lead strategist for Stand for America, the super PAC backing Ms. Haley, said the PAC had been helping level the playing field for her in Iowa. (Mr. DeSantis’s allied super PAC, Never Back Down, has invested roughly $17.7 million in the state covering this year and into January, and Stand for America has committed $13.6 million, according to AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.) He projected further growth and contended the DeSantis campaign had backed itself into a corner.
“We have our eggs in multiple baskets,” Mr. Harris said.
But Andrew Romeo, the DeSantis campaign’s communications director, countered that Ms. Haley’s ad buy amounted to “lighting money on fire,” and paled in comparison to having a network of staff members and volunteers who can mobilize voters on caucus day. “History shows the Iowa caucus cannot be bought on TV ads alone and that a strong ground game is what ultimately matters,” Mr. Romeo said in a statement.
Mr. DeSantis’s campaign and an allied super PAC have been pouring resources into building just that. The campaign has shifted roughly 20 employees to the state from its headquarters in Tallahassee, Fla., including three top aides. The candidate himself has made pit stops at gas stations, diners and county fairs across Iowa, so far visiting all but seven of its 99 counties, with plans to hit the rest soon. More than 40 state legislators have endorsed Mr. DeSantis, who has secured at least one local chair in each Iowa county. This week, Ms. Reynolds cut an ad promoting her endorsement of her fellow governor.
And Never Back Down says it has secured commitments from nearly 30,000 Iowans to caucus for Mr. DeSantis, signed up almost 20,000 volunteers and knocked on more than 633,000 doors. In a Nov. 6 memo sent to donors, Mr. DeSantis’s team said it soon expects to have nearly 50 paid staffers across “more than six offices” statewide between the campaign and super PAC.