By James Oliphant
MIAMI, Nov 8 (Reuters) - An intensifying rivalry between Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley could dominate Wednesday's Republican debate as the two 2024 U.S. presidential hopefuls seek to present themselves as their party's best alternative to former President Donald Trump.
Haley, 51, in third place nationally, has grown stronger as she seeks to dislodge DeSantis, 45, from his distant second place in the Republican race after Trump. The debate, in Miami, begins at 8 p.m. ET (0100 GMT on Thursday).
With the first Republican state nominating contest, in Iowa, little more than two months away, Haley, a former South Carolina governor who also served as Trump's U.N. ambassador, and Florida Governor DeSantis are running out of time.
Trump, 77, has done his best to deny them a direct target.
The debate will be the third Trump has skipped — a gambit that has yet to cost him support in opinion polls that show him the overwhelming Republican frontrunner to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden, 80.
In the two previous televised debates, Haley and DeSantis have been careful not to come down on Trump too hard for fear of alienating his supporters, whose backing they will need if they are to ultimately capture the Republican nomination in July.
The election is almost exactly a year away - Nov. 5, 2024.
Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates at the University of Michigan, said none of the five candidates on stage on Wednesday can afford to shy away from criticizing Trump any longer.
“If they don’t try to pull Trump down, they are not going to achieve their objective,” he said.
Trump will hold a campaign rally a few miles away in the heavily Hispanic city of Hialeah. Hispanics are a voting group both parties will be courting heavily.
DESANTIS AT HOME IN FLORIDA
The Florida debate setting offers DeSantis a home advantage over others on stage. There he can talk up his accomplishments as governor. But Trump, who lives in nearby Palm Beach, is also highly popular in the state.
Haley will be coming off two strong debate performances and has been the only Republican besides Trump to show recent momentum in early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
With the month-old Israeli-Hamas conflict making headlines in the United States as elsewhere, the debate may afford an opportunity for Haley, with her U.N. experience, to flash her foreign policy credentials.
Haley’s campaign on Monday released a memo arguing Haley is now the party’s leading option other than Trump, citing her relative strength in Iowa, New Hampshire and her home state of South Carolina, which holds a primary in February. The memo, written by Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, contends DeSantis has no endgame for securing the nomination even if he does well in Iowa.
In response, the DeSantis campaign released a memo asserting that he is the only one who can defeat Trump in Iowa and keep him from an unstoppable march toward the nomination.
While both hope to capitalize on strong debate performances, the debate could well fail to offer a turning point in what has been a race dominated by Trump from the start.
The three other debate participants - former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Senator Tim Scott - will be trying to assert their relevance and find a path forward.
Ramaswamy could well use the debate stage to promote his non-interventionist foreign policy as he seeks to position himself as the least likely candidate to wade into a foreign war.
(Reporting by James Oliphant in Miami; additional reporting by Gram Slatter; editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)
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