By Jamie Miller
The second of three Republican Primary debates that will occur this Wednesday at 9 p.m.
What’s changed since the last debate? Not much, or everything depending on how you look at it.
The front-runner for the nomination, former President Donald Trump, is foregoing this debate like he did the first and will have his own event with striking auto workers.
Skipping the first debate worked where none of his contenders landed a blow in his absence.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that, at some point, the former president will need to appear next to his detractors, but we know there is nothing conventional about Mr. Trump, his strategy, or his campaign tactics.
My guess is, if he’s leading by wide margins, he will avoid appearing with anyone who wants the nomination.
His absence risks reinforcing the narrative of his selfishness and indifference to GOP victories in the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and states. In politics, we call this act a “lonely” victory. Primary voters want “group” victories.
What about the others? Their goal is to be the alternative to the former president by showing that they can command the stage and be the clear winner among those who are participating.
While the debate strategy for Gov. Ron DeSantis during the first debate was to play defense and come out of the debate unscathed, which he accomplished, he must change his playbook for this debate and the one that occurs on Nov. 8 to be assertive.
Notice that I write “assertive” and not “aggressive.” It is a fine line, but one that must be walked for the Florida governor to be successful. He needs to show that he can deliver and take a punch, and walk away victorious. Victory for him is to prove that he can lead a “national” victory which includes the U.S. Senate.
Vivek Ramaswamy crossed over into aggressive during the last debate, and it worked in the short term as he received a bump in polls prior to recently settling back in the third tier of candidates, in the most recent ABC/Wash Post, Trafalgar Group, and Emerson polls. Most national polls show Mr. Ramaswamy with insignificant support, but a recent Reuters poll gives him nearly the same support as Gov. DeSantis (13 to 14 percent respectively). He will have to show America that his 10-point plan is more than bumper sticker rhetoric and show the American people that he can run the government. This will be a tall order if he acts like a petulant child like he did during the first debate.
Former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also can glean some positive movement since the last debate with a South Carolina poll showing her in a solid second place but still trailing former President Trump by 28 points in her home state. I thought she clearly won the nomination for vice president during the last debate. She had command of issues and where she stood on them. While her stances on issues are appealing for a general election, I question whether she can pivot to a primary election win.
There is one CNN poll from New Hampshire that shows former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie statistically tied with Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy with Donald Trump at “only” 39 percent. New Hampshire, however, can be very tricky to poll when there is an incumbent president because anyone can vote in any primary, so you must assume that a lot of democrats and independents will vote in the GOP primary if the democratic primary is locked up for President Biden (which is currently the case). The baggage in the GOP primary will likely be too great for former New Jersey Gov. Christie to win the nomination, but he is calm and collected in the face of any verbal onslaught and can deliver punches as well as take them. He can determine who will be the nominee through his presence on stage even if he is not the victor.
So, all four of these contenders – Mr. DeSantis, Ms. Haley, Mr. Christie and Mr. Ramaswamy – must come out of this debate as the clear winner. If any of them come out as a clear loser, they are probably done in the “anyone but Trump” sweepstakes.
They all must remember, however, that they must win without offending the supporters of the others on stage.
There will likely be two fewer people on this stage because they do not qualify, governors Hutchinson and Burgum, with two others who may be making their final debate appearances, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.
Editor’s Note: Update: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who participated in the first debate, has qualified for tonight’s debate, according to the AP.