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5 key things to watch for in the first Republican presidential debate

Eight of the top nine candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination will face off in their first debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee. Absent will be the runaway front-runner, former president Donald Trump, who decided the debate wasn’t worth the risk.

The debate is set for 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox News.

Below are key themes to watch for and questions to be answered.

Trying to actually run against Trump has already proved vexing for the field. An unstated rule is that you can’t really attack him and emerge with your career intact.

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Now, in the first major forum for at least drawing contrasts, they won’t have Trump there to engage with — or the viewers he most likely would have attracted.

That could cut a couple of ways. One is that Trump also won’t be there to defend himself, so the candidates might feel freer to edge closer to more overt criticisms. But the other is that there will be no opportunity to trip him up and create the kind of defining moment that these debates usually provide.

Particularly worth watching is how the candidates handle his four indictments. Apart from the most unabashed Trump critics — former governors Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson — the others have offered a gentler approach. Former vice president Mike Pence has said Trump asked him to violate the Constitution but hasn’t judged his former running mate too harshly. To the extent that others have sought traction, it’s been to suggest that the indictments are electoral liabilities, rather than that Trump actually did anything wrong.

But what we’ve also seen is that this kid-gloves strategy has utterly failed. Trump has continued to extend his lead — it’s now nearly 40 points. The candidates have to ask themselves how much longer they’re willing to allow his biggest general-election liability to be an apparent asset in the primary.

Many of them will want to mind their post-2024 careers, too, or perhaps even have designs on being Trump’s running mate. And the recent history of the GOP shows that everyone is generally content to wait and hope for someone else to do something about Trump.

A leaked memo from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s super PAC last week suggests we should perhaps expect more of the same. The fourth “must-do” it lists for DeSantis? “4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”

Part of the calculus for the reluctance to go directly at Trump is undoubtedly this theory: If Trump can be beaten, it will be because he implodes. And better to be next in line if that happens than to have incinerated yourself in August.

Which means we could see plenty of jockeying to become what we’ve labeled the front-runner of the also-rans.

If that’s the play Wednesday, you’ll probably see plenty of focus on DeSantis, whose long hold on that distinction is increasingly tenuous. DeSantis was once nearly tied with Trump in the polls and 30 points ahead of the third-place candidate; now he’s below 15 percent nationally and fending off political neophyte Vivek Ramaswamy.

What might that look like? More traditional conservatives have attacked him for his heavy-handed use of the government to fight “wokeness,” notably by going after Disney. The other candidates could also attack him for his recent comments suggesting that some Trump supporters are “listless vessels.” Or you could see them try to bait DeSantis into the kind of awkwardness that has dogged his candidacy.

Ramaswamy could also be an attractive foil, based on his third-place standing, past positions that haven’t been terribly GOP-friendly and some odd recent comments about foreign policy. (Ramaswamy this week said he had been misquoted talking about 9/11 conspiracy theories, but a recording soon showed he had been accurately quoted.)

It’s a muddled mess behind Trump, DeSantis and arguably Ramaswamy, with no other candidate pulling even 5 percent in the national polling average.

So who else could assert themselves?

Plenty of eyes will be on Christie, who has clearly been anticipating his chance to bring the case against Trump to the debate stage. It might not help Christie, who has badly alienated much of the party with this approach, but he has shown he is willing to try to take people out even if it does him little good (see: Marco Rubio 2016). And Christie could even make himself a player in New Hampshire, where some polls have him running as high as second.

Ramaswamy also has a stake. He’s built a significant following with a successful media-appearance strategy; now he gets tested face-to-face with his opponents and a chance to show he’s not just a novelty.

The last candidate we’ll be keeping a close eye on is former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who can be a skilled messenger but thus far hasn’t broken through — at all — in the 2024 race. The debate could be a good forum for the only female candidate onstage.

Beyond the who’s-up-and-who’s-down nature of Wednesday’s affair will be what it says about the future of the Republican Party. One topic that should gain clarity is election denialism.

Despite Trump’s continuing to press the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, the GOP as a whole has tried to (gently) move on. Nearly all of Trump’s opponents have said, in varying ways, that Trump did lose the 2020 election.

While we should hardly expect the candidates to disown the questioning of the 2020 results — as many as 7 in 10 Republicans still incorrectly believe that President Biden’s win was illegitimate — there are plenty of other ways to set the tone in the party.

For instance, Fox News moderators would be derelict if they didn’t ask the candidates to weigh in on then-Vice President Pence’s decision to buck Trump’s plot on Jan. 6, 2021 — a decision that as many as half of Republican voters have supported. Trump’s dual indictments over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election would also seem to invite some in-depth questioning of those on the stage.

The debate could give the GOP a real opportunity to more overtly shed this losing electoral issue, without Trump there to demagogue it. That is, if anyone cares to attempt this course.

The Republican Party also needs to decide where it stands on two key issues on which there is no clear consensus among the 2024 presidential field: abortion and Ukraine.

Multiple candidates have either shied away from the abortion issue (see: DeSantis) or struggled to strike a balance (see: Haley and Sen. Tim Scott) for fear of going too far now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. They’ve dithered on questions about how early to restrict abortion, whether to ban it at the federal level and whether they agree with a judge’s decision to restrict abortion medication.

We’ve also seen some efforts to highlight this reluctance and force the issue. Trump at one point even suggested that the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed in Florida (but has declined to promote too much) went too far. And a key antiabortion group has at times sought to steer the candidates in a more ambitious direction, targeting both Trump and Haley after they didn’t toe its line.

On Ukraine, you see one of the most pronounced divides in the field. Pence and Haley have hewed to the more traditionally hawkish conservative view that standing by Ukraine against Russia’s invasion is in the United States’ national security interest. Trump and DeSantis, on the other hand, have taken a dimmer view of U.S. involvement, which appears more in line with the activist base but not necessarily the party as a whole.

Both issues are hugely consequential in America’s political landscape right now, with the GOP’s uncertain posture leaving open what will happen next. And both should feature significantly in Wednesday’s debate — and the debates ahead.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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