WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s Republican challengers get a second chance next week to cut into his lead and elevate themselves via a televised debate – and they will need all the time they can get.
Despite four criminal indictments, Trump is 40 points ahead in some state and national polls, raising the stakes for GOP candidates who gather Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif.
As candidates plan to tag Trump in a variety of ways – from abortion policy to electability – they all have at least one basic task: “They need to get as much speaking time as they can possibly get, and need to act as presidential as they can,” said Republican political consultant Liz Mair.
At another level, GOP candidates need to use the debate to somehow jump-start a long-term comeback bid against Trump, who will skip the proceedings just as he did last month in Milwaukee.
Candidates “can do things during the two-hour debate to distinguish themselves and stand out from the pack,” said Aaron Kall, debate coach at the University of Michigan. “But nothing can be done during the course of one evening to meaningfully narrow their substantial polling gap with Trump.”
Actual voting is less than four months away with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15.
The debaters – including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – have signaled a variety of approaches in recent days.
Here’s a look at what each challenger needs to do and is trying to do to defeat Trump:
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DeSantis: Trump will ‘sell you out’ on abortion
DeSantis, who needs to at least hold onto second place in the months ahead, has begun arguing in recent days that Trump is going soft on a major issue for religious conservatives: Abortion.
“I think all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out,” DeSantis told RadioIowa.
DeSantis – and other Republicans – are criticizing Trump for comments urging the party to talk about the abortion issue in a different way because otherwise it could hurt them in general elections.
Trump, who supports exceptions in cases of rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother, also attacked a DeSantis-backed law in Florida banning abortions after six weeks, calling it a “terrible mistake” politically.
DeSantis may also use the debate to argue that Trump is taking the nomination fight, and the voters, for granted.
“I think the former president believes he’s entitled to be nominated,” DeSantis told KCCI News. “He’s not doing the work it takes to really earn people’s votes.”
Haley and the ‘disliked’ Trump
The goal of the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is to maintain the momentum from her well-reviewed performance in the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee.
This time around, Haley is likely to cite a recent CNN poll showing her as the Republican most likely to defeat President Joe Biden in a general election. Other post-debate polls show her catching up to DeSantis for second place.
Haley may also echo her most-quoted line from the Milwaukee event: “We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.”
Pence, Trump and ‘populism’
The former vice president will likely continue stressing contrasts with the former president who put him on the Republican ticket back in 2016.
In preparing for the debate, Pence made a high-profile speech in which he attacked Trump-style “populism” that stresses “personal grievances and performative outrage” over traditional conservative principles.
“Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the Republican Party as we have long known it will cease to exist,” Mr. Pence said during the heavily promoted speech in New Hampshire, site of the first Republican primary.
Ramaswamy: Take Trump’s agenda ‘even further’
The young businessman, who is running his first political race, is taking a unique approach to the campaign and the debate: He’s trying to “out-Trump” Trump with “revolutionary” proposals that would give the president sweeping powers to eliminate a raft of federal agencies and employees.
On a pre-debate interview on Fox News Sunday, Ramaswamy said his “core focus” is to “take the America First agenda even further than Donald Trump did.”
Presidents don’t have the power to do many of the things Ramaswamy is proposing, but his plans and unique foreign policy proposals drew attention to him after the first debate − and criticism from other Republican candidates that is likely to be repeated in the second debate.
“He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel,” Haley said in Milwaukee, telling Ramaswamy: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”
Asked about the criticism, Ramaswamy told Fox: “The reality is many people are annoyed by my rise and believe that a 38-year-old is too young to be U.S. president.”
Christie: Trump’s legal problems are the issue
The former New Jersey governor has been the most outspoken Republican candidate about what some call this campaign’s “elephant in the room”: Trump faces up to four criminal trials next year.
Grand juries in Washington, D.C., Georgia, New York, and Florida have indicted Trump in connection with efforts overturn his loss of the 2020 election, a hush-money scheme, and obstruction of justice in the handling of classified information.
While Trump seeks to delay these cases until after the election, Christie said the charges will render him unelectable in a general election.
“Trump has no one to blame but himself,” Christie said on social media platform X. “His conduct is the cause.”
Christie has also attacked Trump for dodging debates.
Scott needs more time
Scott, who has become stagnant in the polls, is also warming up for the debate by hitting Trump on abortion.
“President Trump said he would negotiate with the Democrats and walk back away from what I believe we need, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level,” Scott said during an event in Iowa.
Scott’s main objective at the California debate: Get more air time.
Kall noted that Scott spoke for only around 8 minutes during the Milwaukee event, not enough to make a big impression.
“The debate learning curve is steep, but time is running out with only a few more debates available before voting begins in Iowa,” Kall said.
Asa Hutchinson, Doug Burgum try to make the stage
Hutchinson and Burgum, two other candidates who debated in Milwaukee, have a more basic challenge next week: Qualifying for the second debate.
At this point, Hutchinson and Burgum aren’t polling high enough to meet the requirements set by the Republican National Committee.
Another candidate, former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Tex., did not qualify for the first debate and probably won’t qualify for this one.
Trump in Detroit
The former president will be a spectral presence at the California debate – he will certainly come up during the discussion.
His goal for the evening: Divert attention from his Republican rivals.
A ‘careful dance’
If the candidates use this debate to step up critiques of Trump, they’ll need to do with care.
Candidates have to draw contrasts with Trump without alienating his considerable number of loyalists – and without giving him free publicity in the process.
Said Mair: “There’s a careful dance to be done here.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Trump’s rivals are trying to win the second GOP debate on Sept. 27
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