Nikki Haley, welcome to the Thunderdome

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Nikki Haley is finally under the microscope.

After evading attacks for weeks from her Republican rivals, it was a town hall question about the origins of the Civil War that finally seemed to stick.

And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. With weeks to go before voting starts, Haley is now facing the first major test of her ability to withstand a maelstrom in the presidential campaign. It is a significant moment not only for the former South Carolina governor, but for the broader effort among Republicans hoping to stop Donald Trump from steamrolling to the nomination.

“This is Haley’s first time under the bright lights, and she must power through this and tackle Trump now,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist. “Or else.”

Haley’s rivals treated her Civil War comments as a lifeline for their own dimming prospects in the race. DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie quickly condemned her answer at their own campaign events this week. And Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, spent much of Thursday addressing questions about her remarks, putting her in the position of explaining rather than selling her candidacy.

For nearly a year — from her beginning as a long shot to her recent rise in polls — Haley went relatively unscathed. Her opponents have highlighted, with little effect, her evolving answers on issues like abortion and transgender rights. But they spent less money against her, too. As of Wednesday, Haley had $14 million spent against her in negative advertising, compared with nearly $37 million for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and $19 million for Trump, according to Rob Pyers, a nonpartisan data analyst. Trump has focused his hammer-like attacks on DeSantis, not Haley. And much of the media scrutiny over the past year focused on the Florida governor’s campaign missteps and policy proposals.


But that changed Wednesday night in Berlin, New Hampshire. Haley’s halting and convoluted response to a town hall questioner — and her ensuing attempts to clarify her comments, later acknowledging slavery as a cause of the Civil War after first declining to do so — put a harsh spotlight on her, arguably for the first time during the primary. Within hours, news outlets had begun digging into her past remarks on the issue, resurfacing an interview she'd given in 2010 in which she offered similar beliefs about the root causes of the Civil War.

And for Haley, the timing and location carried outsize significance. With Trump building wide leads in the three other early primary states — Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina — New Hampshire has emerged as the key battleground in the effort to slow Trump’s momentum. Polls there have shown Haley moving into second place and gradually creeping up on Trump ahead of the Jan. 23 primary.

“The answer itself doesn't have to be a huge problem,” said Liam Donovan, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee official. “But the media response tells you the free ride is over, and she's in for her first taste of adversity.”

The controversy has given particular oxygen to Christie, who in recent weeks has faced questions about whether he will remain in the race. The former New Jersey governor is polling third in some recent New Hampshire surveys, and many top Republicans in the Granite State say he is potentially siphoning off support that could otherwise go to Haley. Christie has insisted he won’t drop out of the race — he released a direct-to-camera ad this week in which he said as much — but the firestorm could give him added incentive to stay in.

“The problem for Haley is that her path to the nomination already amounts to an early state Triple Lindy, and anything that stands to stunt her rise — or, perhaps worse, breathe new life into somebody like Chris Christie — is something she can ill afford,” said Donovan.

Haley was already starting to face a barrage of attacks from her lower-polling opponents in the days leading up to her Civil War comments. DeSantis and Christie have highlighted her seemingly shifting position on the issue of transgender medical rights for minors. After a clip resurfaced earlier this month of Haley in June saying “the law should stay out of it” when it came to underage children seeking gender transitions, Haley told the Christian Broadcasting Network last week “there should be federal involvement” to block anyone under 18 from undergoing gender-altering procedures.

Christie in recent weeks has likewise hammered Haley on her position on abortion, accusing her of speaking differently about the topic in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Officials from rival campaigns have privately expressed frustration about a lack of scrutiny by the media on Haley’s policy positions. Haley, throughout much of her campaign, declined to make herself available for media gaggles at campaign events, instead choosing to grant occasional one-on-one interviews with select reporters and to sit for television spots.

That’s in contrast to other Republicans in the field. Even Trump, the overwhelming frontrunner, has answered questions from mainstream news reporters on his plane and spoke with the press this fall outside a New York City courtroom. In the fallout of her Civil War comments, Haley on Thursday did address reporters while standing next to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

Haley’s campaign cast the controversy as evidence of her increasingly strong standing.

“Everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Trump is attacking Nikki for one reason: she’s the only candidate with momentum,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a Haley spokesperson. “It’s clear this has become a two-person race between Nikki and Trump.”

The lasting effect of the controversy, and the extent to which it registers with voters, is unclear. Her remarks came during a slow week between Christmas and New Year’s Day when, Donovan said, “most normal people have better things to do than follow political news.”

But the dearth of other news this week also focused the media more intently on Haley’s remarks and her attempt to clean them up.

“GOP voters probably don’t pay too much attention to media outrages,” said veteran Republican strategist Scott Jennings. “But this one was the first time she’s shown lack of polish.”