Republican presidential candidates stand on stage before a debate hosted by FOX News Channel, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. Seven of the candidates are set to meet again Sept. 27 in Simi Valley, California; former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson did not qualify/File: AP
WASHINGTON DC: Seven U.S. Republican presidential candidates are debating again, each trying to break from the pack to become the main challenger to former President Donald Trump, who holds a commanding lead for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, even as he faces four criminal indictments.
Trump is snubbing the party-sponsored debate, just as he did last month’s event. While his opponents debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, Trump is staging a political rally in Michigan, a Midwestern political battleground state where autoworkers are striking against the country’s three biggest auto manufacturers.
Trump is strategically figuring he has nothing to gain by appearing on the same debate stage as his opponents when national polling compiled by RealClearPolitics shows him with 56% support among Republican voters for the nomination and a 42-percentage-point lead over his nearest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The six other Republicans on the debate stage, all registering with single-digit support in the polls, are former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
After the first debate, nationwide polling showed the former president actually widening his edge over his opponents, even as he faces the prospect of spending weeks in courtrooms in the first half of 2024, answering charges that he illegally tried to upend his 2020 reelection loss to President Joe Biden and illegally retained highly classified national security documents when he left office in early 2021.
With Trump’s majority support among the base of Republican voters, his opponents have been hard-pressed to convince voters they are a better choice to run against Biden, a Democrat seeking reelection.
Among the debaters, only Christie has pointedly assailed Trump for the criminal charges he is facing.
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, one other Republican contender who has attacked Trump and said he should drop out of the presidential nominating contest, failed to meet the criteria set by the Republican National Committee to be on Wednesday’s debate stage.
The requirements include having at least 3% support in two national opinion polls, or 3% in one national and two state polls from states holding their nomination contests early in the process — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Candidates also need to have at least 50,000 unique financial donors and to sign a pledge saying they will support the person who emerges as the Republican nominee.
University of Michigan debate coach Aaron Kall told VOA that Wednesday’s seven debaters “must directly take the fight to Trump … despite his absence, or else they risk simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, even if they continue to deliver solid performances. There is no hope for anyone to make up ground against Trump unless they engage him more directly.”
“The candidates should remind Trump and the audience of the political penalty associated with skipping debates,” Kall said.
“The seven candidates should point out that Trump’s failure to fully participate in the primary could give Biden an excuse not to debate in the 2024 general election. This time around, everyone must maintain a laser-like focus on the front-runner.”
One key political date is March 5, when party primary elections are scheduled in more than a dozen states, one day after Trump’s trial on election interference charges is set to start in Washington — a courtroom legal battle that could easily last for several weeks.
A second trial, on the national security document allegations, is set to start May 20 in Florida.
Republicans will formally choose their presidential candidate at a national convention in July.
Instead of taking part in Wednesday’s debate, Trump is scheduled to speak at a nonunionized auto parts supplier in Michigan.
His visit there follows Biden’s trip to the state on Tuesday, when he became the first sitting U.S. president to walk a picket line during a labor dispute.
The United Auto Workers union is asking for higher wages, shorter workweeks and pledges from automakers that jobs making electric cars will be unionized.