What to Expect in the First Republican Debate

Republican presidential contenders will face off Wednesday night in their first debate of the primary season — minus frontrunner Donald Trump, who continues to lead his GOP rivals by a double-digit margin.

(Bloomberg) — Republican presidential contenders will face off Wednesday night in their first debate of the primary season — minus frontrunner Donald Trump, who continues to lead his GOP rivals by a double-digit margin.

The former president’s absence exposes his closest challenger, Ron DeSantis, to intensified 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 look to seize the spotlight to overtake the Florida governor, whose campaign is reeling after a series of missteps.

China, economic policy and the war in Ukraine are all expected to be key topics of discussion, along with abortion rights and immigration. Voters and political donors will be scrutinizing the candidates’ performances to see who deserves their support with the party’s first nominating contests set for January.

The two-hour debate will air on Fox News at 9 p.m. Eastern time with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as hosts. It is being held in Milwaukee, which is also the site of the party’s nominating convention next year. Wisconsin is among roughly a half-dozen states seen as crucial to winning the general election.

Here’s what to expect:

Who will appear on stage

In addition to DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy, five other presidential aspirants qualified for the debate: former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Burgum injured his leg while playing basketball on Tuesday, and it’s unclear whether he will be able to stand for two hours on the debate stage, his campaign said.

Each of the participants met the Republican National Committee’s threshold of drawing at least 40,000 individual donors and 1% support in polls, and they have signed a pledge to back the eventual Republican nominee. 

Others like Miami Mayor Francis Suarez didn’t meet the criteria and won’t participate.

The elephant in the room

After toying with the idea for weeks, Trump announced Sunday that he would not participate. Instead, he sat down for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that is set to run at the same time. Regardless, Trump is sure to loom over the discussion. How far rivals are willing to break from the former president could define the remainder of the primary.

While Trump won’t be there, high-profile officials offering Trump-friendly reaction will represent him. They include US Representatives Byron Donalds, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Carlos Gimenez, Michael Waltz, Russell Fry, as well as Donald Trump, Jr. and Kari Lake, according to people familiar with the matter.

DeSantis as the target

DeSantis, who trails Trump by 41 percentage points according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, expects to be the biggest target of the night. Before entering the race, the Florida governor was touted as the best chance for the GOP to move past Trump, but his campaign has suffered from dwindling cash, leadership shake ups and sliding poll numbers. He has enlisted veteran debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who aided US Senator Mitt Romney and former President George W. Bush, with debate prep, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The DeSantis campaign invited a host of politicians including US Representative Chip Roy and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt as supporters. US Representatives Laurel Lee and Rich McCormick and state senators from Florida, Iowa and South Carolina will also attend — a show of his support from early voting states.

DeSantis has also invited donors such as Point Bridge Capital’s chief executive officer Hal Lambert, Disruptor Capital’s chief executive officer Pete Synder, and Canary LLC’s chief executive officer Dan Eberhart, as well as two former Trump administration advisers, which could be seen as a snub to the former president.

China sanctions: Who is toughest?

Watch for hawkish rhetoric toward China, which has become a staple of Republican politics. Several of the candidates have called for revoking China’s permanent normal trade relations status. DeSantis has advocated going beyond that and banning the sale of US farmland to Chinese officials, imports of goods made with stolen intellectual property and encouraging the repatriation of US capital from China with tax incentives. Scott supports the “strategic” use of sanctions against China, barring the sale of oil from the nation’s emergency oil reserve to China and requiring apps like TikTok to be labeled “Made in China.”

Divisions on support for Ukraine

Support for Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion has divided the candidates and could spark a clash. Several have expressed support for President Joe Biden’s policy but said he was too slow to provide help. DeSantis called it a territorial dispute but walked back the remark amid criticism. Ramaswamy has advocated giving occupied territories to Russia and ending sanctions. Recent polls show a majority of Republicans think Congress shouldn’t authorize more funding and that the US has done enough to help Ukraine, even as Americans more broadly are supportive.

Who is the best Trump alternative?

The candidates have largely been defending Trump, hoping to move his loyal base to their camps, but not providing much of a reason to vote for someone else. Christie, however, has pulled no punches. He’s known for his debating prowess and his dislike of Trump. Also, Hutchinson will have his biggest opportunity yet to hone his criticism of the former president. 

Corporate “wokism”

Watch for candidates to stake their positions against the policies of corporations that support LGBTQ rights and steps to combat racism. The Walt Disney Co., Target Corp. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV have all drawn criticism from conservatives on these matters. DeSantis, in particular, has focused his campaign around social issues. 

Biden campaign reaction

Biden’s campaign plans to operate a war room out of Democratic National Committee Washington headquarters and will be issuing responses — and fundraising appeals — according to a party official. Staffers will have video clips of the candidates throughout their careers to push back against them.

–With assistance from Michelle Jamrisko, Akayla Gardner, Gregory Korte and Ryan Teague Beckwith.

(Updates with Trump and DeSantis representatives in 11th and 13th paragraphs)

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