(Bloomberg) — Republican presidential candidates will face off Wednesday night in their first debate of the primary season — minus front-runner Donald Trump, who continues to lead his Republican rivals by a double-digit margin.
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The former president’s absence exposes his biggest challenger, Ron DeSantis, to more intense attacks from lesser-known candidates eager to make their mark and stay in the race. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will try to seize the spotlight to catch up with Florida’s governor, whose campaign is reeling after a series of missteps.
China, economic policy and the war in Ukraine are all expected to be major topics of conversation, alongside abortion rights and immigration. Voters and political donors will scrutinize the candidates’ performance to see who deserves their support in the party’s first nomination contests set to take place in January.
The two-hour debate in Milwaukee airs at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Fox News, with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum hosting. Here’s what to expect:
Who will appear on stage
In addition to DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy, five other presidential candidates qualified to take the podium: former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson.
Each of the debate participants met the Republican National Committee’s threshold of drawing at least 40,000 donors and 1% support in the polls, and they signed a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee.
But Burgum injured his leg while playing basketball with staffers on Tuesday, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to stand on the debate stage for two hours, his campaign said.
Others, such as Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, did not meet the criteria and will not participate.
Milwaukee is the site of the party’s nomination convention next year, and Wisconsin is one of about six states considered critical to winning the general election.
The elephant in the room
After playing for weeks over whether he would participate, Trump announced on Sunday that he will not be attending. It’s unclear if he plans to boycott all three scheduled debates, but he will be represented at the venue by high-profile politicians who throw a Trump-friendly spin. The candidate himself went to work for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which may take place at the same time. The other candidates have been trying to capitalize on the former president’s reluctance to be scrutinized in recent days, and it’s likely he’ll hover over the discussion. How far they are willing to break with Trump could determine the rest of the primaries.
DeSantis as a target
DeSantis, who is 41 percentage points behind Trump according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, has the most at stake. Before entering the race, Florida’s governor was touted as having the best chance for the Republican party to get past Trump, but his campaign has suffered from dwindling cash flow, leadership shakeups and falling poll numbers. In Trump’s absence, DeSantis expects to be the biggest target of his other rivals. The campaign enlisted veteran debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who helped U.S. Senator Mitt Romney and former President George W. Bush prepare for the debate, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Sanctions against China: who is the toughest?
Watch for aggressive rhetoric towards China, which has become a staple of Republican politics. Several candidates have called for China’s permanent status of normal trade relations to be revoked. DeSantis has advocated going further and banning the sale of U.S. farmland to Chinese officials, the importation of goods made with stolen intellectual property, and encouraging the repatriation of U.S. capital from China with tax breaks. Scott supports the “strategic” use of sanctions against China, banning the sale of oil from the country’s emergency oil reserve to China and requiring apps like TikTok to be labeled “Made in China.”
Division over aid to Ukraine
Supporting the Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion has divided the candidates and could lead to a clash. Several people have expressed support for President Joe Biden’s policies, but said he was too slow to offer help. DeSantis called it a territorial dispute, but retracted the comment amid criticism. Ramaswamy has advocated giving occupied territories to Russia and ending sanctions. Recent polls show that a majority of Republicans believe Congress should not authorize more funding and that the US has done enough to help Ukraine, even though Americans are more broadly in favour.
Who is the best Trump alternative?
The candidates have largely defended Trump, hoping to move his loyal base to their camps, but offered little distinction. A forum without Trump gives them a chance to really stand out and give GOP voters a reason to vote for someone other than Trump. Christie, however, does not beat about the bush. He is known for his debating skills and his distaste for Trump. In addition, Hutchinson will have his biggest chance yet to sharpen his criticism of the former president.
Look for candidates who express their views against the policies of companies that support LGBTQ rights and take steps to combat racism. Walt Disney Co., Target Corp. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV have all received criticism from conservatives on these matters. DeSantis, in particular, has focused his campaign on social issues.
Response from Biden campaign
Biden’s campaign plans to send fundraising emails from the event and will operate a war room from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington to provide responses, a party official said. Staffers will have video clips of the candidates throughout their careers to oppose them.
–With help from Michelle Jamrisko, Akayla Gardner, Gregory Korte and Ryan Teague Beckwith.
(Updates on Burgum’s basketball injury in 7th paragraph)
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