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Opinion: There’s a lot of good news for Nikki Haley. But here’s the bad news.

Opinion by David Axelrod, CNN

(CNN) — The Republican presidential debates have so far produced two big winners – one who will be center stage Wednesday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the fourth GOP matchup, and another who won’t be there at all.

Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor, has ridden three commanding debate performances into the thick of the competition to become the last candidate standing beside former President Donald Trump vying for the Republican presidential nomination.

The good news for Haley is that she is now running neck-and-neck for second place with the formerly formidable Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has done a slow and steady fade since the heady days a year ago when he was closing in on Trump in polling and was the great hope of the Republican establishment.

The bad news for Haley is that she still is about 50 points behind the former president, who has made himself the other big winner of the first three Republican debates simply by leaving the stage to others.

In skipping the debates, Trump wagered that without his oversized presence, his opponents would primarily train their fire on each other. So far, he has won that bet.

Despite his absences, Republican hearts have grown fonder for Trump since the first candidate debate Aug. 27 despite the weight of four criminal indictments (he has denied any wrongdoing in the cases). His aggregate polling lead, which was substantial then, has increased over the intervening months.

Wednesday’s debate at the University of Alabama will take place less than six weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the official kick-off of the nominating process. A beleaguered DeSantis has placed all his chips on a strong second-place showing or, even better, a surprise upset of Trump in the Hawkeye State to stay alive in the race. But Haley has drawn even there in some polls.

A second-place finish for Haley in Iowa on January 15 would almost certainly end DeSantis’ campaign and give her some momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary, where she already is in second place, though still more than 20 points behind Trump. An upset there would set up a showdown with Trump a month later in her home state of South Carolina, where she is popular but he is revered among the Republican base.

Haley’s late surge has meant a deluge of cash and other campaign assets from well-heeled donors desperate for an alternative to Trump. Some have migrated from DeSantis, others from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who dropped out on November 12.

Most notably, Haley last week picked up the endorsement of billionaire Charles Koch, whose conservative network has been a force in Republican politics.

But one sure sign that you are making progress in politics is when your opponents attack. It’s terrible to be ignored, but when you get more prominent, rivals turn the heat up on you. With Trump absent, Haley, who thus far has mostly eluded frontal attacks, is more likely to get frontrunner treatment from her rivals on Wednesday night.

Like Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most outspoken critic of Trump in the Republican field, also hopes to make New Hampshire a breakthrough moment. Christie may look to stop Haley’s momentum in this debate — perhaps by challenging her for not being critical enough of Trump.

DeSantis, who has already started running ads attacking Haley’s work while governor to attract Chinese investments, is likely to step up his attacks. And businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, a frenetic troll who has been Haley’s nemesis and foil in the first three debates, undoubtedly will continue attacking her for, among other things, her hawkish positions on national security.

But Haley has already proven to be a pugnacious debater herself. She is unlikely to take this incoming without firing off some sharp attacks of her own.

Helpfully for viewers, there will be more time for all of this parry and thrust Wednesday, since the cast of candidates participating in this debate has once again shrunk. Several of the eight who qualified for the first debate have left the race, including Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

A steadily shrinking field was the design of Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel, who set up an escalating series of minimum polling and fundraising qualifications for each of the first four debates to weed out uncompetitive candidates. McDaniel wanted to avoid the debacle of 2016, when candidates had to break into back-to-back varsity and junior varsity debates in order to all be accommodated.

Still, as the clock ticks and Trump’s prodigious lead remains steady or grows, Wednesday’s debate has the anti-climatic feel of a silver medal round.

The biggest player will once again be absent, content to allow his struggling primary opponents to savage each other while he fires from afar at them, President Joe Biden and a long list of perceived political enemies.

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