GOP Presidential Candidates Prepare for Critical Second Debate Without Trump

If Wednesday’s second GOP presidential primary debate proves to be anything like the first, we’re in for a night of political punches and maybe a rhetorical gang fight or two as the candidates look to score points in another Trump-less bout.

With former President Donald Trump skipping the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, top-tier candidates like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will try to tell those watching why they’re a better option than the race’s far and away frontrunner — and the rest of the crowded field of Republican candidates.

Ramaswamy, judged by many pundits to have had the best performance last month at the first debate in Milwaukee, is getting ready for the rough stuff.

“I think we are largely preparing as he did last time,” said campaign spokeswoman Tricia McLaughlin, adding that this time, they’ll keep “eyes wide open that the knives are out for Vivek.”

The 38-year-old political outsider took the brunt of the slings and arrows in Milwaukee, the consequence of success in the polls that brought him to center stage with DeSantis.

Ramaswamy, based on his third-place position in the national polls, will be back next to DeSantis, a distant second to Trump, at the debate, which begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox Business.

The debate stage has been paired down since the first face-off. Six candidates — DeSantis, Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — have definitely made the cut this time around.

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who were on the first debate stage, appear to be casualties of tighter entry requirements. Candidates had to have 50,000 unique donors and hit at least 3 percent in national polls or polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — the early nominating states.

Burgum, hobbled by an Achille’s tendon rupture in a pickup basketball game with campaign staff the day before the Milwaukee debates, insisted he has made the cut thanks to a Trafalgar Group poll that showed him at 3 percent nationally. But doubt remained on Monday afternoon whether the Trafalgar poll would count.

One thing’s for certain according to Timothy Hagle, long-time political science professor at the University of Iowa: DeSantis and Scott are going to have to engage much more than they did in the first debate when they seemed to all but disappear amid sparring between Ramaswamy, Haley, Pence, and Christie.

“They will have to mix it up,” Hagle said. “You’re fighting for air time, you have to be engaged in the conversation.”

Scott, perhaps more than anyone else in the race, has taken the positive, “nice guy” lane, preferring to talk about the land of opportunity than engage in the mud-slinging of presidential politics.

Expect more of the same.

Scott told Fox News’ Bill Hemmer that debate viewers will once again see a guy “being authentically who he is.”

“I want to be my myself,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “The goal is for us to be able to have a conversation about the most important issues facing this nation and frankly defend the next generation of kids who are losing hope that the American dream will work for a kid in rural Iowa or inner city Chicago.

“I’m the defender for those who cannot find someone to stand up. I will be the voice for those who feel voiceless because I’ve been that kid.”

Scott, the only black Republican in the U.S. Senate, is tied with Christie at 2.5 percent, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of national Republican presidential polls. He’s faring better in the kickoff caucus state of Iowa, polling at 7 percent behind Ramaswamy, Haley, DeSantis and Trump. He’s in sixth place in New Hampshire, at 6.3 percent.

Haley saw her political fortunes improve following last month’s debate, scoring points for hitting Democrats and Republicans alike for heavy spending in the COVID Age and for, in part, her middle-ground position on abortion. She’s polling third in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, and second in her home state, according to the RealClearPolitics tracker. She’s running fourth nationally.

But her adamant support for continued U.S. military spending in Ukraine isn’t a popular position to take among the grassroots conservatives she needs to capture the GOP nomination.

“A pretty large chunk of the Republican electorate have really mixed feelings going on with Ukraine. They see her as with the ‘swamp’ with that,” Hagle said, adding that Haley will have to make a more convincing case to reluctant Republicans.

But the biggest elephant in the party won’t be on the debate stage. Last month, the attacks on frontrunner Trump in his absence were limited. Christie, who has made on campaign on Trump hate, and Pence, who has walked an uncomfortable line between celebrating his former running mate’s accomplishments and blasting him for the events of January 6, 2021, did most of the rhetorical damage.

Trump, who will be in Detroit on Wednesday for a rally amid the ongoing United Auto Workers strike, has taken some heat from pro-life conservatives about his statements earlier this month on “Meet the Press.” He called strict limits on abortion, particularly “heartbeat” laws like those signed by DeSantis, “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”

Hagle said Trump made an easy talking point for his rivals on the debate stage. The University of Iowa political science professor noted the overwhelming Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds received from social conservatives for signing Iowa’s heartbeat bill.

But Trump has been reminding social conservatives what he has done for the pro-life movement in recent days.

“I was able to do something that nobody thought was possible, end Roe v. Wade,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “For 52 years, people talked, spent vast amounts of money, but couldn’t get the job done. I got the job done! Thanks to the three great Supreme Court Justices I appointed, this issue has been returned to the States, where all Legal Scholars, on both sides, felt it should be.”

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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Vivek Ramaswamy” by Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo “Ron DeSantis” by Ron DeSantis. Photo “Nikki Haley” by Nikki Haley. Background Photo “RNC Debate Stage” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.



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