Five things to know about the second Republican presidential debate

Trump, by the way, will again be a no-show.

Candidates take to their lecterns at the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Candidates take to their lecterns at the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News at the Fiserv Forum, Wednesday, August 23, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The first head has rolled from among the Republican presidential candidates who made the debate stage the first time around.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson failed to qualify for tonight’s debate, leaving seven Republicans to duke it out. Well, at least he made it to one. (Looking at you, Francis Suarez. You still owe people their $20 gift cards.)

To be honest, things aren’t looking much better for the candidates that did make it to tonight’s stage, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. 

Former President Donald Trump is polling stronger and stronger every week – and still doesn’t feel the need to show up to debate adversaries that can’t muster the amount of support he has, combined.

Still, the debates offer career-building opportunities for the candidates left. Here are five things to ponder about tonight’s debate:

Will DeSantis be more aggressive?

Critics thought Florida’s governor did just fine in the first debate last month, but said he failed to command the stage in a way people expect from a serious contender.

DeSantis had less speaking time than former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Moreover, no one on the debate stage focused any attacks on him, and he failed to dish out any lasting zingers of his own. 

Since then, DeSantis has only fallen farther behind the frontrunner Trump, even beginning to trail other candidates in some states

Like his bug-ridden Twitter launch announcement and several other campaign roadblocks, the DeSantis strategy during that debate just did not work.

This time around, DeSantis needs to be more than just there. Whether that will include attacking Trump or other candidates, or interjecting during on-stage scuffles, he needs to make a scene, as it were, if he wants to keep his vision of becoming commander-in-chief alive.

Will it be open season on Ramaswamy?

The candidate who got the most out of the first debate has to be Ramaswamy. He finished second in speaking time and was at the center of most of the debate’s dust-ups. His campaign fundraised quickly off of his performance. 

But his boosted profile and attacks against other candidates in the race has placed him in the crosshairs of basically every person running for the White House. People across the Republican party have been shooting his way, and he has seen his unfavorability polling among likely voters increase.

Free from the shadow of a leaked PAC memo encouraging him to attack Ramaswamy, it’s likely DeSantis will look to engage more directly with him this time around. After attention grabbing bouts with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Pence and Christie, you can expect them to go back to the buffet for seconds.

With Ramaswamy polling second in New Hampshire and one of the few candidates in the race with momentum, expect every candidate on the debate stage to take shots at him. Alternatively, bet that there isn’t a single person on that stage, moderating the debate, or working in the Departments of Commerce or Education that Ramaswamy won’t attack.

Will there be verbal strikes on Trump?

During the last debate, most candidates tried to talk about the race’s front runner as little as possible. Aside from a question about whether they would still support him if he won the primary but was convicted of a felony, Trump was discussed very little by others in the race – both on and off the debate stage.

Since that debate, that has begun to change. 

DeSantis has raised concerns about both President Joe Biden and Trump’s age and criticized Trump’s response to COVID-19. His campaign has also begun directly attacking Trump, namely for his response to a question about whether a man can become a woman.

But Trump is still overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters, and a GOP debate hosted on Fox News Business will bring a lot of those. DeSantis and the other candidates need to begin converting Trump voters to their side to have any chance of winning the nomination. 

Can large swaths of Trump's supporters even be won over? Many political pundits don’t think so, especially with Trump not taking the debate stage again.

If he’s not attending, where will Trump be?

Instead of debating, Trump is holding an event that signals he is already looking ahead at the general election. The former president will be giving a speech in front of auto worker union members in Detroit, Michigan. 

This comes as thousands of United Auto Workers members went on strike after the union and Detroit carmakers failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement.

President Joe Biden also has put the strike in his messaging, becoming the first president to visit and walk the picket lines of a union strike while in office. And his campaign has leveraged pro-union messaging.

Biden carried Michigan by an almost 3% margin in 2020, while Trump won it by 0.3% in 2016. If Trump wins his party’s nomination (a safe bet at this point), then Michigan will be one of the main states he and Biden will fight over. Courting support of members of one of the state’s most powerful unions could help make the difference for either candidate.

Does any of this even matter?

There will certainly be theatrics, clips that will go viral on social media, and speculation on which federal agencies will be dismantled if a Republican takes office. Will any of that count?

Here’s what we mean: Trump is polling higher now (with over 55% support) than any other time in this race. The last time he dipped below 50% support was in April, when DeSantis was polling at 25% and not the 13% he has now. With Trump not at a lectern, he robs his opponents of any opportunity to have a solid marketable moment against him.

It’s telling that the most important debate-related issue this week likely isn’t even this debate, but the announcement that DeSantis will be debating California Gov. Gavin Newsom in November. 

The nature of this event, a presidential candidate running against a non-presidential candidate, signals an effort by DeSantis to keep his vision for the country tied as an opposite to Newsom, keeping both of their political careers alive for a 2028 presidential run.

The fact that this (purely aesthetic) debate has as much media buzz surrounding it as tonight’s symbolizes just how little stock politicos are putting into a debate featuring actual current candidates occurring this week and not in two months.

How to watch: Fox Business Network is hosting the debate at 9 p.m. ET, which will be simulcast on Fox News and streamed on Fox Nation. Also, the debate will be on Rumble, the conservative-friendly online video platform. 

Contact Tristan Wood at twood@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on X: @TristanDWood

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