Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley speaks to members of the press after the third Republicad debate on November 8, 2023. AFP

There is Trump, there are wannabe Trumps, and then there is Nikki Haley -- the sole woman in the Republican presidential field and now on the cusp of consolidating second place after showing there may be another way than simply aping the main man.

Ex-president Donald Trump leads the US Republican primaries by dozens of percentage points, but should the scandal-embroiled populist's campaign implode, experts increasingly believe Haley might be ready to pick up the pieces.

The only woman in the field, Haley has notched strong debate performances and attracted robust fundraising, all while sidestepping her male counterparts' fixation on masculinity.

The former South Carolina governor has been "making her mark in a variety of ways that have steadily been pushing her to the front of the pack," if only among "all the people not named Trump," David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, told AFP.

What once seemed like a long-shot bid has been bolstered by recent primary polls in several early voting states -- New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina -- indicating Haley is neck and neck or even ahead of the next leading non-Trump candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Trump, to be clear, is cruising to the Republican nomination. His far-right MAGA movement is dominant and even Republican establishment figures who once expressed horror at his behavior have fallen into line.

Yet Trump faces serious criminal charges, including over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results, and so a last-minute reversal is not impossible.

For Alan Abramowitz, professor emeritus of political science at Emory University, this would be dependent on "what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire and also what happens with these trials."

Haley would be "well-positioned if Trump implodes," he said.

While the stars aligning for her nomination are not "highly likely," Barker added, "it's possible."

The former UN ambassador boasts a polished resume but has also won ground by leaning into her opponents' attacks, including on gender.

It's a skill that could be useful given Trump's propensity to belittle competitors along sexual or physical lines.

In an early November debate when entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called her "Dick Cheney in three-inch heels" -- an allusion to an unpopular former vice president -- Haley turned the insult on its head.

"I'd first like to say, they're five-inch heels," she said, adding that "I wear heels, they're not for a fashion statement, they're for ammunition."

As it happens, DeSantis, the once-presumed heir to the Trump brand, has his own shoes drama -- a much mocked accusation that he is boosting his stature by wearing lifts in his cowboy boots.

At 51, Haley would have an immediate age advantage against Biden and recent polling shows she would beat the Democratic incumbent more easily than any other Republican.

The child of Indian immigrants has bucked conventional wisdom that a Republican candidate must mimic Trump's relentless hard line, instead wooing centrist voters with a somewhat softer approach.

However on issues like abortion, her wavering has left political observers wondering what she really believes.

For example, during the third Republican debate, she struck a markedly less militant anti-abortion tone, saying,

"As much as I'm pro-life, I don't judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don't want them to judge me for being pro-life."

"Let's find consensus," she said -- a term not much heard on the Republican campaign trail.

But last week when asked whether she would sign a controversial six-week abortion ban if still governor, Haley told a gathering of conservative Christians in Iowa: "Yes. Whatever the people decide."

When Republicans debate a fourth time on December 6, it is possible only Haley, DeSantis and Ramaswamy will have qualified to participate -- apart from Trump who refuses to appear at the events.

According to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, Trump has 59 percent of the vote while DeSantis has slipped to 14, Haley has climbed to 11, and Ramaswamy languishes at five.

For all her non-Trumpian appeal, Haley still espouses a number of her former boss's views.

Although she has criticized Trump's false claims to have been the victim of voter fraud in the 2020 election, she says she is proud of serving in his administration and shares his dislike for the United Nations. The former UN ambassador has promised to defund the world body "as much as possible" if elected.

She has also aligned with many of Trump's foreign policy decisions, including withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.

"She's certainly conservative enough for I think most Republican primary voters," Abramowitz said, adding that many of her biggest differences with Trump are "more in style I think than in substance."

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