SIMI VALLEY, Calif. – 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:
IS ANYONE RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT?
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…