In the Republican nomination contest, even five-inch stilettos might not be enough to overcome the towering figure of Donald J. Trump.
For a third time on Wednesday night, Nikki Haley won praise for her deft performance on a Republican primary debate stage.
Over the course of the two-hour face-off, Ms. Haley displayed her foreign policy credentials, parried attacks on her record and even transformed her shoes into a campaign weapon. When Vivek Ramaswamy, Ms. Haley’s most aggressive antagonist, derided her as “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels,” Ms. Haley was ready to rise above.
Literally, at least, if not figuratively.
“They’re five-inch heels,” she said, standing tall in her spiky black shoes. “And they’re not for a fashion statement. They’re for ammunition.”
Still, months of campaigning, a series of strong debate performances, healthy campaign accounts and rising numbers in surveys of early voting states haven’t been enough to put Ms. Haley within striking distance of Mr. Trump, who remains the dominant front-runner. While Ms. Haley’s support has increased, particularly in Iowa, voters have yet to flock to her candidacy in overwhelming numbers. A number of megadonors have taken a wait-and-see approach, keeping an eye on Ms. Haley but remaining on the sidelines.
Now, a little less than 10 weeks before Iowa voters cast the first ballots in the caucuses there, the clock is ticking.
“The momentum is clearly there, but momentum is a very elusive thing,” said Kevin Madden, a former Republican operative who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 and 2008 presidential campaigns. “How does she turn it into an avalanche — 1,236 delegates to secure the nomination at the convention? The blueprint for that has yet to be unveiled.”
Ms. Haley’s backers say that Wednesday’s performance should help her continue to make inroads — drawing major donors and gaining support among voters eager for an alternative to Mr. Trump.
Fred Zeidman, a Texas businessman who has been one of Ms. Haley’s biggest fund-raisers since the start, said he fielded calls on Wednesday night from people who were “ready to get out their checkbooks.”
Onstage, she showed her “substantive” knowledge on policy issues and kept her cool “even when her mettle was tested by Vivek,” he said.
Beyond her confrontations with Mr. Ramaswamy, Ms. Haley seized opportunities to demonstrate her foreign policy experience and political acumen and continue making her general election pitch. While her male opponents tried to soften their tone on abortion — the debate came a day after Democrats successfully leveraged the issue against Republican candidates in the off-year elections this week — Ms. Haley simply repeated the conciliatory message of compassion she has been pushing for months.
And when it came to international affairs, she offered a rejoinder that none of her rivals could match. When Mr. DeSantis said that as president, he “would be telling” Benjamin Netanyahu to eliminate Hamas after the horrific Oct. 7 attack, Ms. Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, immediately made it clear she had already delivered the message to the Israeli prime minister.
“The first thing I said to him when it happened was I said, ‘Finish them,’” Haley said.
Yet Ms. Haley faces a significant climb. One recent poll of Iowa had Ms. Haley tied at 16 percent support with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — with Mr. Trump 27 points ahead. Part of her challenge is the crowded field, which has made it more difficult for any single candidate to consolidate support. And plenty of donors, of course, have stuck with Mr. Trump: On Thursday, Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot founder, who had not committed to matching his previous financial support for the former president, announced he would be backing his third presidential bid.
Ms. Haley’s supporters say that the race remains fluid and that there is still time for the field to winnow into a Haley-Trump matchup in South Carolina, her home state and the third on the nominating calendar. They believe that Ms. Haley can emerge as the central alternative to Mr. Trump, even if her main primary rival — Mr. DeSantis — remains in the race.
A close second-place finish — or even capturing the biggest vote share in Iowa after Mr. Trump — could catapult Ms. Haley into New Hampshire and the contests that follow, attracting fresh support and prompting some rivals to bow out, argue her aides and surrogates.
Ms. Haley’s team has been trying to leverage her unique profile. The only woman on the stage, she stands out by definition.
Campaign aides and surrogates describe women as some of her most critical enthusiastic boosters, donors and volunteers. “Women for Nikki” groups have been expanding across the country since her campaign began in February, largely based on word-of-mouth and friends reaching out to friends, campaign aides and volunteers said. They now include spinoffs for young mothers, students and military spouses.
“This is being driven by a momentum because of who she is and how she connects with people,” said Jennifer Nassour, a regional co-chairwoman of the “Women for Nikki” coalition.
On the campaign trail, both men and women are quick to cite their excitement for the possibility of the first female president, but they argue that Ms. Haley’s qualifications, competence and projection of calmness in the face of chaos are driving their support.
“I want to see a woman that will fight for our country and put our country first, and that’s what she did when she was at the U.N., and I believe that’s what she will do,” said Noel Searles, 75, a retired sales manager who recently listened to her speak at a diner in Londonderry, N.H.
Yet, in some ways, Ms. Haley has been caught in a circular cycle. Some of the Republican Party’s largest donors have been cautious, expressing interest but wanting to see if she can capture enough support among primary voters to make a serious run at Mr. Trump. Supporters of Ms. Haley argue that the backing of major party donors could help her consolidate support by nudging some rivals toward the exits.
As the race heads toward Iowa, one advantage Ms. Haley has is money. Between July 1 and the end of September — the most recent numbers available in federal campaign finance filings — she raised $11 million across her political committees, a steady increase over the two previous quarters.
What’s more, her campaign has kept costs low: In the third quarter, her campaign spent $3.5 million, about 43 cents of every dollar it took in. That is a marked contrast with Senator Tim Scott’s presidential campaign, which spent $2.70 of every dollar it received, and Mr. DeSantis’s campaign, whose spending slowed over the quarter but still leveled out spending nearly every dollar it took in.
As of Thursday, the campaign had not itself bought any advertising time. (A super PAC backing Ms. Haley has spent more than $22 million on advertising in early primary states, according to an analysis by AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.)
There are some signs major donors are turning their attention to her. Harlan Crow, a wealthy real estate developer, hosted a fund-raiser for her in October with well-connected real estate and oil and gas donors in attendance. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois, a top giver to Mr. DeSantis, transferred his allegiance to Ms. Haley after the first debate. Last week, one of former Vice President Mike Pence’s top donors — the Arkansas poultry magnate Ron Cameron — said he would back her, after Mr. Pence dropped out of the race.
Arun Agarwal, a Haley donor and textiles executive in Dallas, expressed optimism more key backers would follow. He said he received several texts from major Texas donors as the debate progressed asking what they could do to help. Mr. Agarwal added that he had seen this slow and steady rise before: He first reached out to Ms. Haley sometime around 2004 when he came across a news article of her long-shot bid for the South Carolina State House. To his surprise, she won that race.
There were such “high expectations going into last night and she met them,” he said. “We need to get off the sidelines and start supporting what we believe in.”