HomePoliticsThe first debate and the race for second place

The first debate and the race for second place

What’s the point of Wednesday night’s Republican debate?

It’s not an unreasonable question, since the runaway frontrunner for the Republican nomination decides to skip it.

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But there’s a case where we might get a clearer picture of the race if Donald Trump is absent. We will certainly get a clearer picture of an important dimension of the race that we might not have been able to observe otherwise.

Let’s start with a question from a reader, James Tucker of Plano, Texas, who pointed to something we’ve never addressed directly before: the possibility that Trump might not be in the race.

“Mr. Cohn, I enjoy your columns. Do you see pollsters asking Republicans, ‘If Trump isn’t in the race, who would be your pick?’ The possibility is real enough.”

It will certainly seem real Wednesday night, without Trump on the debate stage.

And it’s a possibility that could gradually take on greater significance over the coming weeks and months.

The special counsel’s office requested a January 2 trial date in the election subversion case against Trump in Washington, saying it would take four to six weeks to present evidence. In theory, that could at least lead to a verdict before the Republican delegates’ preponderance is awarded in March.

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I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to speculate on whether it’s likely that the Special Prosecutor will get his trial date, much less a conviction, before Super Tuesday on March 5.

But as a political analyst, I can say that it doesn’t normally seem likely that Trump will lose the nomination by conventional means in a conventional race: His lead over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is at least twice that of any frontrunner. whoever has ever lost a party nomination at this stage.

All things considered, it’s quite possible that the most likely way for Trump to lose the nomination is the mounting weight of his legal challenges, rather than conventional electoral defeat during the campaign and debate. That weight could take a variety of forms, including some that are a long way from a conviction, such as the possibility that Republican voters will gradually reassess the severity of the risks Trump faces as a trial approaches — but realistically, we’re talking about a trial, conviction and even imprisonment.

If we determine that these risks are, in fact, the greatest Trump faces, a certain strategy for his opponents is beginning to take shape: one aimed at profiting from Trump’s collapse, should it occur. It could be about avoiding conflict with Trump, rather than trying to topple him, hoping to win over the former president’s supporters once he faltered. It could be about attacking the other minor candidates, emerging as the most likely to benefit from a potential Trump collapse. In the long run, it is a strategy that could bring victory. For now, it may look no different than fighting to take second place – the fight we’ll see on the debate stage.

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The debate strategy posted by a company affiliated with the DeSantis affiliate super PAC Never Back Down contained some of this approach. It advocated partially defending Trump when Chris Christie attacked him, presumably hoping to maintain broad appeal for Trump’s supporters. Instead of attacking Trump, the memo argued, DeSantis should “take a sledgehammer” at Vivek Ramaswamy, who may have worked his way up to third in the national polls.

Ramaswamy may seem far, far behind Trump on the list of challenges facing DeSantis, but not if he’s pursuing a second-place strategy. So far this year, DeSantis has had a very clear lead over his closest rivals, including in polls without Trump. But Ramaswamy wins. If DeSantis fell behind him, the bottom could fall out, his donors could flee, and he would no longer be in a position to take advantage of any opening, should there be one.

It’s probably not fair to say that DeSantis simply has a “second place strategy.” For one, his campaign may still have a narrow path to a conventional victory, even if Trump is not collapsing under his own weight, in part because DeSantis seems relatively stronger in Iowa. On the other hand, Trump has promised to stay in the race even if he goes to jail. A second place strategy should eventually turn into a first place strategy when the time was right.

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But either way, Trump’s decision not to participate in the debate could prove useful. Out of respect for the candidates, the voters, and the democratic process, I am always reluctant to consider the possibility of a candidate “going out of the race,” as our questioner put it. But without Trump in the debate, it is entirely appropriate to consider the campaign without him. That’s the race we have on Wednesday night. It could be the race we have next year.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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