What to Expect in the Second Republican Debate

The auto workers strike, the looming government shutdown and a renewed focus on abortion rights all set the backdrop for the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday.

(Bloomberg) — The auto workers strike, the looming government shutdown and a renewed focus on abortion rights all set the backdrop for the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday.

The event kicking off at 9 p.m. New York time in Simi Valley, California, could bring fresh attention to issues surrounding immigration and border security. It also provides another chance for the candidates to distinguish themselves from the pack and mount a serious challenge to former President Donald Trump. The clear frontrunner has once again opted to skip the gathering. 

Viewers will be watching for businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence to repeat fiery performances that at least temporarily boosted their profiles and poll numbers. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott get another shot to break out after their underwhelming performances in the first debate last month in Milwaukee.  

Here’s a rundown of what to watch in Wednesday’s debate:

In the Hot Seat 

DeSantis has the most at stake after he largely ceded the spotlight to rivals last month. 

The governor, who trails Trump by 42.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average, is grasping to maintain his contention that he’s the most viable alternative to Trump amid slumping poll numbers and donor skepticism. Indeed, the DeSantis campaign sent a memo to donors Saturday to reassure them of the governor’s chances.

Trump’s absence again positions DeSantis as the leading contender on stage. Last time around, he finished in the middle of the pack in terms of speaking time, and his opponents largely directed their fire elsewhere. 

The challenge now for DeSantis is to avoid a repeat of that dynamic, lest his campaign slip further toward mixing with the rest of the field.

Seeking to Break Out

Scott’s challenge is similar to DeSantis’s. He entered the first debate riding a bit of fundraising and polling momentum, but failed to capitalize, mostly fading into the background. Only North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson spoke less. Hutchinson didn’t qualify for the second debate.

Look for Scott to seek to distinguish himself around the issue of abortion. He has criticized Trump’s record, suggesting the former president would loosen the 15-week national abortion ban that Scott supports. Scott released an ad Monday accusing his fellow Republicans of wanting to “retreat on life.” 

Trump earlier this month targeted DeSantis on the issue, calling Florida’s six-week ban “a terrible mistake” and saying he’d negotiate with Democrats to forge a compromise. In an interview with ABC News following his energy policy rollout in Midland, Texas, DeSantis called Trump’s abortion comments a “mistake” and said the former president is a “different candidate” than in the past.

Clamoring for the Limelight

Ramaswamy and Haley, by contrast, could benefit from more of the same. 

While still trailing DeSantis nationally, the two candidates — along with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — are essentially tied with the Florida governor for second place in New Hampshire, according to a CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released Sept. 20.  

Haley has filled out her policy platform substantially since the last debate. She unveiled her economic plan last week, vowing to cut taxes and reduce inflation by slashing spending. She’s also said she would seek to boost domestic energy production. 

Ramaswamy succeeded in drawing some of the most fiery attacks of the night in Milwaukee, putting him on many voters’ radars for the first time. But that could end up being a one-off. 

For Pence, who spent much of his speaking time in the last debate talking about his role making sure electoral votes were certified during the Jan. 6 insurrection, it will be important to find a way to excite voters. 

Shutdown, UAW Strike, Immigration

The economy is again sure to be a hot topic, with a government shutdown Sunday looking increasingly likely. 

Haley said Monday in an interview on Bloomberg Television that a funding lapse would be “irresponsible and inexcusable,” while Trump on Sunday urged House Republicans to dig in on their spending demands. DeSantis has also encouraged GOP lawmakers to stand their ground. 

Central to the dispute is hardline Republicans’ insistence that a border security bill —  which they say is necessary in light of increased border crossings on President Joe Biden’s watch — be attached to any funding extension. 

Look for candidates to get pressed on their views, as well as weigh in on the ongoing United Auto Workers strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers. 

Trump, who went largely undiscussed at the first debate aside from his role in Jan. 6, will be visiting Detroit instead to woo UAW members, according to people familiar with his plans, a day after Biden joined the picket line. 

–With assistance from Stephanie Lai and Gregory Korte.

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