She's the candidate who Democrats fear most, precisely because she's the least scary of the Republicans. Not the most moderate, by far; that would be Chris Christie.
But it is hard to see the Republican Party — and especially its right-wing core — picking the most moderate candidate in the field. Haley's appeal is that she isn't really a moderate in substance, but she talks a moderate game.
That's clear in how she talks about abortion.
As governor of South Carolina, she signed a bill prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy with no exception for rape or incest.
And then last week, in a move clearly intended to appeal to the party's right-wing extremists, she announced that she would have signed a six-week ban, which would bar abortions at a point in time when most women don't even know that they are pregnant.
But when she talks about abortion, she talks about finding consensus, not about federal bans. Consensus in the country is, I would argue, to be found in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), not in absolute bans, but Haley uses that issue, and her gender, to sound like she is open to striking a balance.
She does the same on foreign policy. She is a staunch supporter of Israel and of U.S. aid to Ukraine. She is a hawk who doesn't sound like an extremist.
She almost sounds bipartisan, even as she attacks President Joe Biden.
"It's not over exaggerating to say the world is on fire. There's a lot going on in our country, and it's not good," Haley has said. "There's nothing I would love more to tell you that Biden did that to us. But I've always spoken in hard truths and I'm going to do that with you today, our Republicans did that to us, too."
The campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., which is clearly feeling the sting of Haley's rising poll numbers, has taken the tack of her being too moderate to win the nomination because she claimed that Hillary Clinton was an "inspiration" to her to run for high office and because she said the George Floyd's death "needs to be personal and painful for everyone."
But those are precisely the sorts of statements that make her seem less scary to voters who the Democrats desperately need, namely independent women and voters of color.
The fact is, as her debate performances to date make clear, she is capable, as she says, of "kicking back." She has effectively used Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been sinking in the polls, as her straw man.
She's appealing to wealthy Republican donors, who have been disappointed by DeSantis, as the conservative alternative who can broaden the base of the Republican Party.
DeSantis, who might have done better running, as he did in Florida, as the "can-do" candidate with broad appeal, has instead emerged as a stiff, unappealing extremist.
His problem is not with his campaign staff and organization, which has undergone repeated shakeups with no positive impact. In his case, as they say, "the fish rots from the head." I'd rather have a beer with Nikki. Who wouldn't?
The calendar is her friend. In primary politics, you can survive if you can point to a time in the near enough future where you can win. Nikki Haley gets to finish strongly — but not necessarily win — in Iowa and New Hampshire and then point to her home state of South Carolina as the place where she can take on Donald Trump and beat him, head to head.
DeSantis, by contrast, has invested so heavily in Iowa that anything less than a victory will raise the question of where he can win. South Carolina is where Joe Biden effectively clinched the nomination in 2020.
A Nikki Haley knock out of Trump, even if it is in her home state, would prove that he is not invincible. And that, for Democrats, is almost as scary as a Trump victory might be. Trump can be beaten by Biden. Haley will, for all these reasons, be a tougher challenge.
Susan Estrich is a politician, professor, lawyer and writer. Whether on the pages of newspapers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post or as a television commentator on countless news programs on CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS and NBC, she has tackled legal matters, women's concerns, national politics and social issues. Read Susan Estrich's Reports — More Here.