Republican donors are poised to switch their allegiances from Ron DeSantis to Nikki Haley as they eye up a candidate able to take on frontrunner Donald Trump.
Ms Haley looked at home on the debate stage in Simi Valley, California, despite the event at times descending into chaos.
The candidate seemed to separate herself from much of the bickering going on between her opponents, appearing confident and prepared while rapidly firing off statistics on virtually every issue she was grilled on.
Her disciplined performance seemed to strike a chord with the audience, who clapped loudly following her many monologues.
Her killer line was directed at Vivek Ramaswamy: “Honestly, every time I hear you I feel a little bit dumber”.
Ms Haley could have the edge others are lacking: electability.
This question is key to Republican voters who are reluctant to put Mr Trump back in the White House and fearful of Mr DeSantis’ culture war.
Once seen as the best alternative to the former president, Mr DeSantis’ campaign bid has been hampered by his lacklustre performance and continued attacks by Mr Trump.
Meanwhile, Ms Haley has been gaining in popularity after making a strong general election pitch and giving a steady performance in the two Republican debates.
One Republican donor, who gave more than $1 million to Mr DeSantis, said he has doubts the former Florida governor can win. He is now open to Ms Haley, 51, who is campaigning as a foreign policy hawk.
“Until the first debate I hadn’t seen her force of will and her presence. I absolutely would consider donating to her,” the donor said.
He said his decision to support either Ms Haley or Mr DeSantis would come down to who he thinks is “most capable” of taking on Mr Trump and, eventually, Joe Biden.
Cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder said he is also interested in Ms Haley although he has not decided whether to support her, according to a source.
‘There’s a lot to like about her’
Christopher Galdieri, professor of politics at Saint Anselm’s College, said Ms Haley has “emerged as an alternative to Mr DeSantis”.
He told The Telegraph: “There’s a lot to like about her if you’re a Republican primary voter. She was a governor in a key primary state, she’s relatively young, she’s the only woman in the field, she worked for Trump, but she’s not super Trumpy... if you’re looking for somebody who’s not Trump and you’re worried that DeSantis isn’t cutting it, or had a shot and blew it... she’s the next place to look.”
But, Prof Galdieri added, because of her increasing popularity she was going into the second debate “with a target on her back”.
“If you’re Ron DeSantis, or if you’re somebody else who wants to be seen as the leading alternative to Trump, then you don’t want Haley between you and that second place spot.”
He said lots of viewers will be looking at Mr DeSantis tonight, thinking “you’ve got to do something or else it might be time to go back to Florida.”
Trump the clear frontrunner
Even if Ms Haley does overtake Mr DeSantis, she will still have the uphill struggle of trying to beat Mr Trump to become the Republican nominee. He is almost 40 points ahead of Mr DeSantis, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll.
Recent surveys showed Ms Haley running third in Iowa and New Hampshire and second in her home state of South Carolina. One CNN survey showed Ms Haley beating Mr Biden in a hypothetical general-election matchup.
Despite usually enjoying a friendly relationship, tensions boiled over between Ms Haley and Tim Scott as they clashed over curtains.
Mr Scott called into question Ms Haley’s fiscal responsibility by claiming she “put $50,000 on curtains in a $15 million subsidised location” while US ambassador to the UN.
She joked: “Bring it, man”, adding that Mr Scott had “bad information” because Barack Obama “bought those curtains”.