SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — A growing sense of urgency hangs over Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate as seven candidates fight for momentum on a stage that will not feature the race’s front-runner.
Former President Donald Trump says he’s so far ahead that it would only help his competitors if he participated. The former president’s second consecutive absence gives those who do show up more airtime to make their case. But less than four months before Iowa’s kickoff caucuses, they are running out of time to change the trajectory of the primary.
Here are some of our biggest questions heading into the debate:
For much of the year, the Republican contest has felt much more like a race for second place — or even an audition for a Cabinet position or ambassadorship in Trump’s next administration should he win.
Conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy was the breakout star of the first debate, but he heaped praise on Trump along the way, calling him the best president of the 21st century. He was not alone. Almost all of the candidates on stage raised their hands when asked if they’d support Trump’s candidacy even if he were a convicted felon.
And while the candidates did clash among themselves, few took the opportunity to go after Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who casts himself as Trump’s strongest rival, was much more eager to go after Democratic President Joe Biden.
Part of their reticence could be explained by the challenge that Trump’s absence creates. It’s hard to debate an empty podium. But their cautious approach on Trump has been remarkably consistent all year.
Few are willing to focus on Trump’s most serious liabilities: the Capitol attack he inspired, his four criminal indictments, his constant lies about the 2020 election, his weakening of democratic institutions. Instead, his rivals have offered an array of subtle jabs about his political strength, his age or his conservative bona fides.
If they’re going to turn up the heat on the front-runner, Wednesday night would be an ideal place to start. After all, he won’t be there to defend himself.
The Republican debate is playing out as thousands of U.S. auto workers strike in swing-state Michigan. The labor dispute offers both opportunity and risk for the debate participants.
The Republican Party is eager to protect its recent gains with white working-class voters, who have increasingly aligned with Trump’s GOP since he took office. But that’s easier said than done in a party that has long fought to undermine labor unions.
Sen. Tim Scott evoked former President Ronald Reagan during a campaign stop in Iowa earlier in the month while addressing the strike: “He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me to the extent that we can use that once again.”
The comment, which sparked a formal labor complaint from the United Auto Workers union, will likely be the focus of a question Wednesday night. The backlash against Scott was a reminder that the GOP’s traditional anti-union positions could alienate the same working-class voters in the same Midwestern battlegrounds they need to win the presidency in 2024.
The candidates must make a convincing case that they are pro-worker, just not pro-labor union. We’ll see if Scott changes his rhetoric on the debate stage.
Trump, of course, is traveling to Detroit on Wednesday to meet with autoworkers just a day after Biden became the first sitting president in memory to stand on the picket line with them.
As the prospect of a government shutdown intensifies, the candidates will almost certainly be pressed to take a position on an issue that has split Republicans on Capitol Hill and threatens to undermine the U.S. economy.
There is a clear dividing line in the debate within the GOP.
On one side, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other mainstream Republicans support a compromise spending package negotiated with Biden earlier in the year that would keep government and the services it provides to millions of Americans open. On the other is a small group of hard-right House Republicans using the debate to try to slash spending no matter the short-term cost.
While shutdowns are not popular with most voters, Republican presidential contenders typically align themselves with the party’s hardline conservatives, who hold the most power in Republican primary elections. That’s been the case in the 2024 primary so far.
Over the last week, Trump, DeSantis, Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence have seemed to endorse the prospect of a shutdown if the hardliners’ demands — which include pulling back on aid to Ukraine — are not met. But saying it on the campaign trail isn’t the same thing as saying it on national television with millions of voters watching.
Like the rest of the Trump alternatives, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has struggled to make any real headway against the former president. But she may be better positioned than most thanks to the one key issue among GOP primary voters: electability.
Democrats acknowledge Trump would be a formidable general election foe should he become the Republican nominee. But Biden’s allies may be more concerned about a head-to-head matchup against Haley, a 51-year-old former governor.
Haley, the only woman on stage, has a big opportunity to strengthen the perception that she is a safer bet than Trump in a general election against Biden. If enough Republican primary voters believe her pitch, she could very well emerge as a legitimate threat to the former president.
It’s unclear whether Haley’s rivals see her as a direct threat, but they likely won’t let her claim the electability mantle without a fight. The issue is especially critical for DeSantis and Scott, who have struggled since delivering underwhelming performances in the first debate.
DeSantis’ initial strength was based on the notion that he, too, was best positioned to win next fall. That’s why, at least in part, he focused so much on Biden in the opening debate. But DeSantis and his “anti-woke” message has turned off mainstream Republicans. And Scott’s happy warrior approach has yet to catch on.
Both men badly need to generate some momentum on Wednesday. Haley may be getting some fresh attention, but she still has a lot of work to do to become a genuine threat to Trump.
Some Republicans would like to stop talking about abortion given the political advantage Democrats have on the issue. But it’s not going away.
That’s because some Republican candidates see it as one of Trump’s biggest political weaknesses. Trump paved the way for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade by transforming the court, but he has irked social conservatives by questioning their rhetoric on abortion, which he recently blamed for the GOP’s lackluster performance in the 2022 midterms.
Some of Trump’s rivals are eager to highlight the pro-life community’s concerns during the debate.
Pence, an evangelical Christian, has already vowed to take Trump to task for his refusal to embrace a national abortion ban. Both Scott and Pence said they would sign a national abortion ban if elected.
DeSantis has tried to jab Trump from the right, although he faces a more delicate task. Just five months ago, the Florida governor signed into Florida law a ban on abortions at six weeks of pregnancy — before most women know they’re pregnant — although he has sidestepped direct questions about whether he supports a federal ban.
As the only woman on stage, Haley is perhaps the party’s best messenger on the issue. In the first debate, she urged Republicans to not push for a national abortion ban with next to no chance of passing Congress, a view she is likely to reinforce on Wednesday night.
As long as the issue is featured prominently, Democrats will be pleased.