NEW YORK — Eight Republican candidates will meet on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday night in what may be the biggest moment in the GOP's young 2024 presidential primary so far. The overwhelming front-runner in the contest, former President Donald Trump, won't participate. He says he's so far ahead that he'd be helping his opponents by showing up. But his absence also offers them opportunity.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a distant second to Trump in many polls, is betting that a strong showing will cement his status as the strongest alternative to the former president despite his many stumbles. DeSantis' team sees rising newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, as a threat, while South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence have positioned themselves to compete.
The debate also features a handful of aggressive Trump critics led by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose anti-Trump message is the centerpiece of his campaign despite the former president's continued popularity in the party. Other lesser-known candidates including North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson are largely trying to introduce themselves to voters across the country to help qualify for the second debate.
Here's what to watch:
ALL ABOUT TRUMP
Trump is the central issue in today's Republican Party, which means he will be the central issue in the debate even in absentia. To this point, most of his rivals have tiptoed around the former president, unwilling to raise serious concerns about his mounting legal baggage, his lies about the 2020 election and his divisive leadership style.
It may be more difficult for the candidates to avoid tough questions about Trump's many shortcomings on Wednesday night, especially with outspoken critics like Christie pressing the issue. DeSantis' approach is particularly significant given his struggle to take advantage of Trump's shortcomings so far, although DeSantis' allies put out a memo last week actually encouraging him to defend the former president during the debate.
Few Republican rivals, if any, have successfully navigated the delicate politics of Trump over the last eight years. They're about to be tested again under the brightest lights in presidential politics.
CAN DESANTIS BEGIN TO REVERSE HIS SLIDE?
On paper, DeSantis was Trump's strongest competitor when he entered the race this spring. He hasn't lived up to the billing. And after a series of stumbles and staffing cuts, DeSantis cannot afford to underwhelm with the nation watching on Wednesday night.
His opponents won't make it easy. He may have avoided a direct confrontation with Trump, but DeSantis is expecting an onslaught of attacks from the other candidates on stage. He'll need to defend himself while projecting a likeable image, which is something he's struggled with in the past.
DeSantis also risks being too scripted if he parrots the talking points leaked by allies last week that called for him to “defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack,” “hammer Ramaswamy in a response" and “attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times.” Perhaps no one has more to gain with a strong performance than DeSantis. But if he has any glaring missteps, he may not make it to Iowa.
For much of the year, many Republican candidates have sidestepped specific questions about abortion and whether they would support a federal law outlawing the procedure nationwide. Whatever they say or don't say Wednesday night could have serious short- and long-term political consequences. And there are no easy answers.
Religious conservatives who wield tremendous influence in GOP primary elections — especially in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses — strongly support a nationwide abortion ban. But the broader swath of voters who will ultimately decide the general election next fall overwhelmingly support abortion rights.
Look no further than DeSantis for evidence of the delicate dance on abortion. Just four months ago, the Florida governor signed into Florida law a ban on abortions at six weeks of pregnancy — before most women know they're pregnant. But he has largely avoided the issue on the campaign trail. Scott and Pence stand on the other side. Both have said they would sign a national abortion ban if elected. And Pence is planning to press the issue on the debate stage whether his rivals want him to or not. Democrats hope he does.
FOREIGN POLICY CONFLICT
The conservatives on stage agree on most policies. But in the age of Trump, foreign policy has emerged as a serious point of contention.
A growing group of Republicans, including the likes of DeSantis and Ramaswamy, have embraced Trump's “America First” populism that calls for a reduced U.S. footprint in global affairs. DeSantis earlier in the year described Russia's invasion of Ukraine as “ a territorial dispute " before being forced to backtrack. Others have offered similar assessments. And the conflicts extend well beyond Ukraine.
Ramaswamy last week said he hoped to reduce expanded aid to Israel by 2028. On the other side of the issue, Pence and Haley have called for a more muscular foreign policy against Russia and other geopolitical foes as is the GOP tradition.
Foreign policy rarely sways presidential primaries, but few issues will demonstrate the differences between the candidates' policies on Wednesday night more than this one.
CHRISTIE: A DANGEROUS WILDCARD
No one on stage has proven to be a more effective debater than Christie. The pugnacious former New Jersey governor, always comfortable in the spotlight, almost single-handedly ended Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's campaign during a 2016 presidential debate with a devastating takedown. Later that year, Christie joined Trump's debate prep team ahead of his meeting with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
That makes Christie a dangerous and experienced wildcard for the other participants. He has emerged as the most vocal Trump critic in the 2024 Republican field so far, and he is expected to continue to pound on the former president even in absentia. But without Trump on stage, it's unclear if such attacks will resonate. Christie could easily shift his ire to one or more of Trump's apologists on stage, including DeSantis.
In recent days, Christie has seized on the memo that the Florida governor's allies leaked last week outlining specific debate talking points. Christie, who took down Rubio for being overly scripted, warned that the Florida governor should “get the hell out of the race” if he repeats the talking points.
CAN A LOWER-TIER CANDIDATE BREAK OUT?
For some candidates, this presidential debate could be their last unless they can score a breakout moment. Pence in particular struggled to meet the fundraising thresholds to qualify for Wednesday's event. Hutchinson and Burgum barely met the 1% polling marks. That gives several candidates a big incentive to generate a viral moment that will be remembered — and replayed on social media and cable TV — over the coming weeks.
Most will have prepared lines designed to do just that, although it's not easy to deliver such lines without sounding overly scripted. That won't stop them from trying. The next debate is scheduled for Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Trump has already said he would not participate in that one either. And given rising polling and fundraising thresholds, it would be a surprise to see all eight candidates on stage again.