A number of Republican presidential contenders — minus the front-runner, former President Trump — will take part in the second presidential debate Wednesday.
The forum, which will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute Simi Valley, Calif., outside Los Angeles, will feature seven candidates: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not qualify for the debate stage.
Trump, meanwhile, will appear alongside striking autoworkers in Michigan, a key battleground state, in another example of counterprogramming.
Here are five things to watch ahead of Wednesday’s second GOP primary debate.
Who will be target No. 1?
Many political pundits and strategists predicted that DeSantis would be the target of the candidates on stage during the first presidential primary debate in Milwaukee last month, given his second-place status.
But while DeSantis was positioned in the center of the stage, his opponents largely did not attack him. Instead, Ramaswamy drew most of the fire from the other candidates. The businessman-turned-politician had a number of heated exchanges with Haley, Christie and Pence, and his rambunctious performance resulted in a surge in media and voter interest. Haley has also seen a noticeable bump in polls following the debate.
Observers will be watching to see who takes the most incoming fire this time in California.
Ramaswamy and Haley could be targeted on stage due to their recent rise in the polls. DeSantis could also still come under fire, because he remains in second place in most state and national-level polling.
There is also the question of whether the field’s Trump critics will be attacked on stage in front of what could be an audience that is sympathetic to the former president. Christie, a skilled debater, has focused much of his campaign on hitting Trump. Meanwhile, Pence has hit his former boss over his role in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
Will the candidates attack Trump?
While the former president went largely undiscussed during the last debate, some candidates did take shots at him. Haley questioned whether Trump could defeat President Biden in a general election and hit Trump for adding “$8 trillion to our debt.”
Yet Haley was among the majority of candidates on stage who raised their hand when asked whether they would still support Trump as the party’s nominee, despite his legal issues; only Christie and Hutchinson did not raise their hands. Christie went on to criticize Trump, which led to him being booed by the audience. And Christie has given no indication that he will back off of Trump this time around.
Pence could also be critical of Trump this time around. In the last debate, Trump’s former vice president reiterated his belief that Trump “asked me to put him over the Constitution. And I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”
One candidate who likely will not attack Trump is Ramaswamy, who repeatedly praised Trump during the first debate. At one point, he referred to the former president as “the best president of the 21st century.” Ramaswamy’s performance earned him widespread praise from Trump world, including Trump himself.
Many Republican strategists and operatives acknowledge that attacking Trump comes with risks due to his strength with the GOP base, but others are hoping the other candidates come out swinging against the former president in an effort to stand out.
Can DeSantis stand out?
All eyes were on DeSantis going into the first debate, given his status as a rising star in the party and the race’s second-place contender. The Florida governor largely played it safe, staying out of heated exchanges with other candidates and focusing on his record. His performance received mixed reviews, with supporters saying he rose above the fray and his critics describing him as barely having a presence on stage.
DeSantis’s supporters argue that he doesn’t necessarily need a standout moment during this debate, noting that debates don’t have a long-term impact on the polls. But roughly four months after entering the primary as Trump’s chief challenger, the Florida governor has not surpassed Trump in the polls.
Instead, other candidates such as Ramaswamy and Haley have gained some traction nationally and have even surpassed the Florida governor in some polls out of New Hampshire. A standout moment and a positive news cycle could give DeSantis the jolt of energy he desperately needs.
Do Haley, Ramaswamy capitalize on their polling bumps?
Haley and Ramaswamy went head-to-head during the first debate — and both seemed to benefit. The two candidates saw an increase in media interest following the forum, which appears to have translated into some polling. A Saint Anselm College Survey Center at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics (NHIOP) survey released Monday showed Haley leapfrogging DeSantis among the state’s primary voters, garnering 15 percent support, behind Trump’s 45 percent.
Meanwhile, a CNN/University of New Hampshire poll of the state’s likely GOP voters showed Haley and Ramaswamy surpassing DeSantis.
Another standout performance from Haley, Ramaswamy, or both, could again lead to increased attention from voters, which could translate in the polls.
But the two GOP contenders are still a long way from having a major impact in most polls. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Ramaswamy and Haley at 5.4 and 5.3 percent, respectively. DeSantis remains in second place at 14.1 percent, while Trump is in first place at 57.3 percent.
Will anybody walk away with new momentum?
It’s unclear whether polling bumps seen following the first debate were a result of the forum, candidates’ ground games, or both. It’s also unclear whether the debate will solidify any decisions for voters.
Trump is leading the primary by a wide margin, and none of the candidates have been able to cut into that so far. Additionally, Trump’s absence from the debate speaks to how critical he thinks it is, as the front-runner. The move forces GOP primary voters to choose between watching Trump, the debate, or monitoring both.
Still, the Fox Business debate could bring in a sizable audience. The Fox News primary debate last month brought in 12.8 million viewers despite Trump’s absence from the stage. The candidates on stage in Simi Valley will certainly be hoping that a good performance could give them some much-needed momentum as they look to defeat Trump in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.