Republican voters will have another opportunity to kick the tires on the 2024 presidential candidates who take the stage Wednesday for the second GOP primary debate.
Fewer White House hopefuls will debate this week than those who assembled for their first discussion in August, but it remains unclear how many will be on stage at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.
Six candidates have qualified for the second debate ahead of the Sept. 25 deadline, and Trump has again declined to participate. The former president instead plans to visit Michigan to speak with striking auto workers.
Trump remains the unquestionable frontrunner in the primary and besides pummeling attacks aimed at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he has largely ignored other contenders for the Republican nomination. Polling out of New Hampshire, for instance, shows Trump holding a 26-point lead over his nearest competitor.
That leaves the question of what, if anything, the other contenders must do to chip away at Trump’s massive lead and gain traction with the GOP base.
Here’s a look at what is at stake for each of the candidates who have qualified for Wednesday’s debate.
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DeSantis faces nosedive, must go on offensive against Trump
DeSantis risks losing his title as Trump’s chief rival in the contest after months of attacks and scrutiny have taken a toll.
The CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released last week showed DeSantis plummeting by 13 percentage points among likely voters in the Granite State since July. The drop took Florida’s governor from second at 23% to fifth with 10% support.
DeSantis, who gained notoriety in the conservative universe for being Florida’s chief cultural warrior, noticeably didn’t take lay a finger on Trump during the first debate.
But while campaigning in Iowa recently, DeSantis said anti-abortion activists “should know that (Trump’s) preparing to sell you out” after the former president called Florida’s six-week ban on abortion a “terrible mistake” politically. He later told a TV news station Trump “believes he’s entitled” to the GOP nomination and isn’t “doing the work it takes to really earn people’s votes.”
DeSantis can’t afford to lose more ground, so many expect he will be more aggressive on stage this week.
Haley likely to emphasize ability to beat Biden or Harris
If anyone received an adrenaline rush out of the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, it was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley who saw a boost in the polls.
Haley has been trying to strike a more traditional tone for a Republican nominee, emphasizing fiscal policies such as cutting middle-class taxes as a way to soothe ongoing economic woes.
During a speech in New Hampshire, where she is currently polling third, Haley said her former boss was “thin-skinned and easily distracted.”
Haley has also leaned into her foreign policy background as the former UN ambassador under Trump, saying he was strong at first on international affairs but has become “weak in the knees” in terms of supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Where Haley is likely to distinguish herself the most on Wednesday is by emphasizing surveys showing that she is the best Republican to defeat President Joe Biden in a hypothetical general election. She has also recently made Vice President Kamala Harris a foil in her interviews, saying that is her real opponent.
Ramaswamy must prove staying power
Vivek Ramaswamy’s campaign has been a quest to “out-Trump” Trump, which got him to the center of the debate stage in August.
That also came with inheriting a brighter spotlight from opponents, who slammed him as inexperienced, and reporters, who have taken a closer look at his “revolutionary” ideas and life story.
In the weeks since the first debate the 38-year-old biotech millionaire has stayed in the news for various reasons: flip-flopping on joining TikTok as a way to appeal to younger voters; comparing Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., a Black woman, to the Ku Klux Klan; and defending his past use of a temporary visa program for high-skilled foreign workers, despite his calls to dismantle the system.
The question is if Ramaswamy will be a momentary flavor of voters seeking a Trump alternative while asking why they should chose a diet version of the former president.
Perhaps picking up on that question, Ramaswamy said at a campaign event in Ohio last week how his “friend” Trump misled Republicans when he promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“Eight years later, did it happen? No, it did not,” Ramaswamy said. “It is a false promise if it is contingent on Congress.”
Pence seeks to separate GOP from Trump’s populism
Mike Pence has one of the most difficult tightropes to walk in the 2024 primary. He is Trump’s former vice president who says he is proud of their record while finding ways to finds contrasts with the man who put him on 2016 ticket.
As of late that has been Pence, a former congressman and governor, has been calling out Trump’s populist style, saying it hurts Republicans in the long-run and isn’t compatible with conservatism. He stressed how Trumpism—and by extension the MAGA movement—is more about “personal grievances and performative outrage” than traditional conservative principles at a recent speech in New Hampshire.
“The truth is, Donald Trump, along with his imitators, often sound like an echo of the progressives they would replace,” Pence said.
The question coming into Wednesday is can Pence convince a significant portion of Republicans that being the traditional GOP standard bearer can effectively win a primary.
Scott risks being forgettable as abortion differences arise
Sen. Tim Scott’s nice guy approach resulted in him being largely forgotten during the first GOP debate in August, where he spoke for about eight minutes during the two-hour event.
One area where he could find more room to breathe is the differences among Republicans on abortion access. Scott is a staunch social conservative, and has said in recent interviews how Trump is “wrong” on abortion, and that the country needs a “pro-life president in the future.”
Scott, much like Pence, will have to make a case for why supporting a 15-week national abortion ban is a political winner at a time when progressives are winning statewide referendums.
The South Carolina lawmaker may also find time to carve out his position on striking auto workers after jousting with UAW President Shawn Fain, who filed an unfair labor practice claim against Scott for suggesting striking workers should be fired.
“They want to threaten me and shut me up,” Scott said. “They don’t scare me.”
Christie continues to prosecute Trump’s legal woes, character
Chris Christie remains the most outspoken Republican in terms of focusing almost exclusively on warning primary voters that Trump’s four criminal trials will be a fatal flaw in 2024.
The former New Jersey is also calling Trump a chicken for once again bypassing a debate.
“If I was him, I wouldn’t want to show up to the debate either,” Christie said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, citing the Trump administration’s failure to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, balance the budget or repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But Christie faces a popularity issue himself that he will have to overcome, as polling shows just 17% of New Hampshire Republicans have a favorable view of him, according to the CNN/University of New Hampshire poll. Even worse is that 60% of likely GOP primary voters in the survey said they wouldn’t support Christie under any circumstance.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What each Republican needs to do at second GOP debate without Trump
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