By Alexandra Ulmer and Gram Slattery
(Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley appears to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' faltering campaign, with more donors saying they are looking more closely at her candidacy as an alternative to frontrunner Donald Trump.
Reuters spoke to four donors and one source close to a major donor who were impressed by the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the first Republican presidential debate in August and said they were keen to donate should she continue to strengthen as a candidate.
They will be watching to see how she does at the second debate in California on Wednesday night among those vying to win the party's nomination to run for president in the 2024 election.
DeSantis, once seen as the most formidable challenger to former President Trump, has struggled to catch fire amid missteps and relentless Trump attacks on his candidacy. Despite his campaign's struggles he has retained the support of some major donors.
Donors are crucial to keeping White House hopefuls afloat, and the willingness of some to now look beyond DeSantis underscores his struggle to convince donors that he is the best alternative to Trump. It also shows the despair of some Republican establishment donors looking for a viable candidate who is not Trump.
Of the five donors looking at Haley, three have so far broadly sat out the campaign while one has donated to DeSantis and another was supportive of him but did not donate. Reuters also spoke to a half dozen Haley donors, advisers to donors, and even supporters of other candidates who said more donors are looking at Haley.
One Republican donor, who gave more than $1 million to help DeSantis' presidential bid, told Reuters he has doubts that DeSantis can win and is now open to Haley, 51, who is campaigning as a foreign policy hawk while emphasizing her relative youth compared to the 77-year-old Trump.
"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, asking to remain anonymous.
He said his decision to support either Haley or DeSantis would come down to who he thinks is "most capable" of taking on Trump and, eventually, Democratic President Joe Biden in the election.
Uncommitted cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder is also interested in Haley following the first debate although he has not decided whether to support her, according to a source aware of his thinking.
To be sure, some of the Haley buzz has been generated by uncommitted donors paying closer attention to the Republican race now that summer is over. While more are looking at her it does not mean they will ultimately back her quest for the party's nomination.
The Haley campaign did not respond to requests for comment about donor support. DeSantis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said in a statement that the campaign continues to see "overwhelming enthusiasm from grassroots and major supporters" and that it was looking forward to "continued fundraising success this quarter."
Winning the Republican nomination will be a monumental task for either DeSantis or Haley. Even if more donors do line up behind Haley, it may be in vain, as so many Republican voters appear set on Trump.
Trump is almost 40 points ahead of DeSantis, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, although some recent polls in states like New Hampshire show Haley gaining ground or even jumping ahead of DeSantis.
John Yates, a New Mexico-based donor who was initially somewhat interested in DeSantis, said he likes Haley's positions on China and Israel but would like to hear more about her domestic plans.
Ultimately, Yates stressed, he was looking for a "dark horse" to beat Trump. "I don't want a loser," Yates said.
But donors like Frayda Levin, a New Jersey-based former book industry executive, despair of finding a candidate who can defeat Trump, whom she opposes for what she considered his "crude" personality and "populist" policies.
"Money is not going to change the dynamic in this primary race," she said.
One of the complications of Haley's bid has been running against Senator Tim Scott, a fellow South Carolinian who is also seeking to win over party moderates.
Fred Zeidman, an early Haley fundraiser, said her debate performance convinced some donors who were hanging back to commit. "I've had a bunch of people wanting to connect and write checks," said Texas-based Zeidman.
Rob Godfrey, a Republican strategist who advises some donors, said he has also seen an uptick in support for Haley in South Carolina.
"It's up to her campaign and in some ways dependent on her second debate performance as to whether or not this is momentum or a moment," said Godfrey, who was Haley's spokesperson as governor but is neutral in the primary.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco and Gram Slattery in Washington; editing by Ross Colvin and Grant McCool)