Tonight’s Republican Debate Is Trump-less Again; Does It Matter?

Tonight’s Republican Debate Is Trump-less Again; Does It Matter?
(L–R) Republican presidential candidates former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) participate in the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The third Republican presidential debate kicks off Nov. 8 at 8 P.M. in Miami. Does it matter?

Not according to many of former President Trump’s supporters. They’re quick to note that their favored candidate, the clear frontrunner among GOP hopefuls, is continuing to boycott the debates. Once again, he’ll host counter-programming to draw viewers away from the debate—in this case, a rally at the Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah, Florida.

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Former President Donald Trump gestures while golfing at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., on Sept. 13, 2022. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

That’s less than a 12-mile drive from the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where the third debate will take place. Pity the drivers of South Florida, but not President Trump.

“He’s staying above the fray,” said Professor Mitchell McKinney in an interview with The Epoch Times.

Mr. McKinney is a professor of political communications and dean of the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Akron who has researched whether presidential debates matter. He explained that President Trump used the primary debate stage brilliantly in 2016.

The reality show star systematically took down his opponents, wielding everything from pointed criticisms of their records to memorable nicknames—for example, “Little Marco” for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). No one has replicated that in the 2024 primary debates, and President Trump has little reason to show up and risk attacks modeled on his own.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks during a press conference in the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 11, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

“He is not willing to subject himself to that same treatment, that same strategy that he used in 2016, in this cycle,” Mr. McKinney said.

“Given Trump’s enormous and consistent lead in the polls, there’s an argument to be made that none of the Republican primary debates so far has had much of an effect,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor emeritus in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

But Mr. Schroeder, author of the 2016 book “Presidential Debates,” doesn’t consider the Miami event meaningless.

“Clearly, there would be more excitement if the frontrunner were participating, but on the other hand, if Trump was on that stage, none of the others would stand a chance of getting out a message,” he said.

High-level Republicans could be considering other factors as they contemplate the participants in the Miami debate—for example, the multiple indictments facing President Trump as well as 14th Amendment challenges to his appearance on various states’ presidential ballots.

“Trump could be convicted and go to jail, and the Republican Party leadership could decide that a jailed candidate, although he could win the nomination, cannot win in the fall, and start pushing the person who has looked the best in these debates,” said William Bike, a journalist and the author of “Winning Political Campaigns: A Comprehensive Guide To Electoral Success,” in an interview with The Epoch Times.

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Ronna McDaniel secures a fourth two-year term as Republican National Committee (RNC) chairwoman after a three-day meeting at a luxury resort in Dana Point, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2023. (Mei Li/The Epoch Times)

“If Trump’s candidacy should collapse, one of these other candidates might emerge as a plausible alternative,” Mr. Schroeder said.

Attention Builds ‘Political Futures’ for Young Candidates

The number of participants has been whittled down to five. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, finally on his home turf, will appear alongside former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

“With only five candidates on the stage, there will be more opportunity to discuss policy differences, and less of a tendency for the fringe contenders to compete desperately for attention,” Mr. Schroeder said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s fabled “Burgumentum” couldn’t overcome the friction of the campaign trail; he didn’t qualify for Miami. Other hopefuls, such as former Vice President Mike Pence, have dropped out of the race entirely.

Even if they don’t trounce President Trump this time around, the debaters have strong incentives to gain more visibility through participating. For one thing, most still have time to make a mark in future elections, presidential or otherwise. Ms. Haley is in her fifties, and Mr. DeSantis is in his forties. Mr. Ramaswamy is just 38 years old.

The Miami debate, like the Trump-free debates before it, could be about building toward tomorrow.

“All five of the debaters on Wednesday, with the exception of Christie, are relatively young, with political futures that are likely to extend beyond 2024. Even if none of them ends up with the nomination this time, there are future election cycles to consider. Mr. Schroeder said.

Mr. McKinney agreed, saying Miami’s debate could showcase “future stars of the Republican Party.”

“That would become even more relevant if we see that Donald Trump gets the nomination and is not successful,” he added.

Paul Gottfried, a paleoconservative political theorist and former professor at Elizabethtown College, thinks Ms. Haley is the best situated of those younger Republicans.

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Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley delivers remarks during the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Nikki has done a good job positioning herself as some kind of centrist; and although no other Republican is likely to overtake Trump, she should be able to obtain the vice-presidential nomination. Haley could then use that achievement, whether or not Trump is reelected as president, as a launching pad for her own future presidential bid,” he said in an email interview with The Epoch Times.

He stressed that he does not endorse Ms. Haley.

“I admire Nikki’s craftiness but don’t fancy her as a presidential candidate,” he said.

Haley’s Media Halo

If the younger Republicans who debate in Miami get exposure, it might not be on terms that the GOP’s conservative base likes.

In particular, some have complained about the Republican National Committee’s (RNC’s) decision to pick NBC as host of the Nov. 8 debate. Lester Holt and Kristen Welker will moderate it.

In an open letter to Mr. Holt and Ms. Welker, L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center urged the two to “resist the habit of functioning like a Democrat political operative.”

“It is not your job to coax Republicans to vote for [President] Joe Biden in the general election or to cajole Democrats to stay faithful to their party,” he wrote.

Mr. Christie and Ms. Haley may gain from an environment defined by the legacy media—Mr. Christie as a strongly anti-Trump voice, and Ms. Haley as “some kind of centrist,” to use Mr. Gottfried’s phrasing.

Mr. Gottfried pointed out that Ms. Haley oversaw the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State Capitol. Her interventionist foreign policy stance could be popular with many Republicans and Democrats as the U.S. scales up its support for wars on multiple fronts and potentially even more as China’s threat to Taiwan mounts.

“She seems carefully scripted, as the Non-Trumper with impeccable neoconservative credentials, who can hold the center-right while picking up support from the center-left,” he said.

Mr. McKinney praised Ms. Haley’s performance in previous debates, highlighting her approach to President Trump.

He contrasted her strategy with that of candidates who level more personal attacks on the former president. On the other hand, she also goes further than Mr. Ramaswamy, according to Mr. McKinney. He described Mr. Ramaswamy as “unwilling to take on President Trump.”

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Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks to the Epoch Times during the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Summit. (The Epoch Times)

Ms. Haley, he argued, “takes on Donald Trump, but her attacks are typically grounded in policy, and she comes with receipts in terms of facts and figures.”

Mr. Schroeder also anticipates that Ms. Haley could continue to benefit from the debates, saying that her “campaign has been helped by her participation in the debates so far.”

Yet, one of Ms. Haley’s frequent arguments—namely, claims that she is more electable than President Trump—may have been hurt by a recent New York Times/Siena College poll and other results suggesting he is strong nationally and in key battleground states against President Biden.

The argument that President Trump is a can’t-win candidate “has just been greatly weakened over time,” Mr. McKinney said.

2024 Season ‘Like No Other in American Electoral History’

While Ms. Haley has picked up speed, Mr. Bike suggested that another candidate has a chance to shine on Nov. 8.

“This next debate offers Ron DeSantis to make a comeback as the best alternative to Trump. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds endorsing him has given DeSantis’ faltering campaign a shot in the arm,” he said.

He said Mr. Scott has a chance to “show that he is a good vice presidential candidate, which is what he’s really running for anyway.”

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Presidential candidate Tim Scott speaks at the 2023 CAGOP convention in Anaheim, Calif., on Sept. 29, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Mr. McKinney said that the black South Carolina senator could help a Trump-led ticket pick up African-American voters, who have long favored Democrats.

“Donald Trump might see an opening there with someone like Tim Scott,” he said.

Whatever happens, this primary and general election cycle will likely stand out as unusual. An incumbent-like candidate, facing multiple indictments, is outpacing a more conventional field—and the Democrat who defeated him may or may not drop out.

“The year 2024 will be like no other in American electoral history, and this debate will be a part of that history,” Mr. Bike said.

From The Epoch Times

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