Opinion: Why the next seven weeks are so critical in the race for president

File photo/Damon Winter/The New York Times / A monitor shows an exchange between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami on Nov. 8, 2023. It is time for the most promising of Donald Trumps challengers — who at this point appear to be DeSantis and Haley — to show us what they are made of, NYT columnist Michelle Cottle writes.
File photo/Damon Winter/The New York Times / A monitor shows an exchange between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami on Nov. 8, 2023. It is time for the most promising of Donald Trumps challengers — who at this point appear to be DeSantis and Haley — to show us what they are made of, NYT columnist Michelle Cottle writes.

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.

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 foundering 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?) 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.

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 ASAP.

But this race is not over. In fact, not a single vote has been cast. And for all Trump's advantages, he's lugging around some heavy baggage.

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 Joe Biden to suffer a serious health event. 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 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.

The next several weeks are basically DeSantis' 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 Sen. Tim Scott's departure, will benefit Haley more than 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 one-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 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.

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.

Whether Haley 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 if she cares less than DeSantis. 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 than raising doubts about Trump or even DeSantis.

Haley has maybe two debates pre-Iowa to strike a memorable blow. While she has the disadvantage of 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 Haley and 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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