Second GOP debate: From attacks to breakout moments, here’s what to watch for in California

Second GOP debate: From attacks to breakout moments, here’s what to watch for in California

WASHINGTON−Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination in the 2024 presidential race will take the stage Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley, Calif., for the second GOP primary debate.

After last month’s showdown, some candidates will likely change their strategies and who they’ll attack during the two-hour debate, from 9 to 11 p.m. EST, that night.

The first debate in Milwaukee in late August brought more attention to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who have both seen polling bumps since then. Haley spent much of her time on offense against competitors as she focused on her vision for the country. Ramaswamy played defense most of the night, targeted by fellow Republicans on stage as he has attracted larger campaign crowds and more media coverage.

Here’s a look at what to watch for in the second debate.

August 23, 2023: Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, are introduced during the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 8 presidential hopefuls squared off in the first Republican debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined to participate in the event.

Who has qualified for the second GOP debate?

So far, the six candidates who have qualified for the second debate include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Ramaswamy, Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

It is unclear whether North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson will be on stage. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump also said he will skip the debates, citing his large lead in the polls.

Ramaswamy will likely be the other candidates’ punching bag − again

Ramaswamy remains in the upper tier of candidates and will again be near the center of the stage, ensuring high profile skirmishes with other candidates, according to Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and co-author of “Debating The Donald.”

“Ramaswamy did an excellent job in the first debate of being extremely blunt and interjecting himself into a lot of important exchanges,” Kall said. “This earned Ramaswamy a lot of airtime, but he also absorbed a tremendous amount of political punches.”

Notably in the last debate, many candidates sparred with Ramaswamy over his lack of experience. For instance, Haley shot back at Ramaswamy after he said the U.S. should cede eastern Ukraine to Russia, arguing he has “no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

Pence also said during the first debate that “we don’t need to bring in a rookie” to the White House – a direct nod to Ramaswamy – and later added the country needs a president who’s been there and knows how the government works.

“His weakness is that he spouts a lot of nonsense and comes across as the kid who reminds the teacher to collect everyone’s homework,” David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, told USA TODAY. “Expect even more of his competitors to expose Ramaswamy’s lack of depth and sincerity in the next debate.”

But as a newcomer, Ramaswamy declared in the last debate that he’s the only one “not bought and paid for” on stage and leaned on Trump-style, far-right values to try to appeal to voters. This divide between populism and traditional conservatism embraced by candidates like Pence will likely emerge as a theme in the second debate, said Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

“This is the most important problem that the party is facing now, as Trump leads the populist faction – and Ramaswamy knows this – while Pence is trying to steer it back to its recent historical roots,” Traugott said.

Topics that could be discussed: economy, natural disasters and Trump

Because Fox Business and the Reagan Foundation are hosting the debate along with other partners, a more nuanced focus on business and economic issues could be in store, Kall said. 

“Ramaswamy and Burgum – if he qualifies – both have overseen wildly successful startup businesses and these experiences may come up during the debate,” Kall said. He added that the candidates will continue to knock Bidenomics, inflation and high interest rates. 

The regulation of private companies like TikTok and Disney could be ripe for discussion given “traditional Republican orthodoxy regarding regulation,” and attention on union strikes or a future shift to electric vehicles could also be debated given the timeliness of events, he said.

Natural disasters and climate change could also crop up as topics of interest. Hurricane Idalia’s recent damage to Florida and DeSantis’ handling of events at the time, including his decision not to meet with President Joe Biden, could be a talking point for some candidates like Christie. 

While Trump is not expected to show up at the second debate, his four indictments will likely take center stage as it did in the first GOP primary debate when six candidates raised their hand that they would support the former president if he gets chosen as a Republican nominee even if he was convicted.

“The most compelling question for the second debate is how many of these candidates are actually running against Donald Trump, and how many are deferentially running behind him in hopes of being asked to join the ticket,” Niven said. 

Christie and Hutchinson will likely criticize the former president while Ramaswamy will fiercely defend him. 

DeSantis and Scott could have their big moments on stage

Traugott said he thinks both DeSantis and Scott’s performances in the first debate didn’t stand out.

“They had a cautious approach to the event, which explains that – no harm no foul,” he said. “Even though both are well funded, they have yet to attract many new supporters. Without any movement, their funding will decline.”

DeSantis came into the first debate with the “greatest degree of difficulty and biggest target on his back given Trump’s absence,” Kall said, but he stayed above the back and forth attacks between other candidates. 

“DeSantis appeared confident and engaged during the first debate and showed some leadership by initially criticizing ‘hand-raising’ questions from the moderators. He was well-prepared and came with a catchy basket of debate zingers that were competently timed and delivered,” Kall said.

Niven, on the other hand, said he thought the governor was “awkward, boring, and reactive instead of polished, compelling, and dominant.” Either way, DeSantis could likely face a moment of conflict on stage with other candidates based on recent events. For instance, he recently hit back against a man who blamed his policies for the Jacksonville, Florida, shooting last month. 

Kall said he thinks Scott delivered a “strong closing statement” in Milwaukee. If Burgum and Hutchinson fail to qualify for the second debate and more opportunities exist for lower-tier candidates to be given a spotlight, Scott could potentially make a comeback.

“I would expect the moderators to contrast the positions of Haley and Scott, so both candidates should be prepared for this likely battle,” Kall said. 

Scott will likely face questions about faith – a central theme in his campaign – as he did in the first GOP debate.

Nikki Haley: Lone wolf or part of the pack?

Haley, the only woman running in the GOP primary, stood apart from other candidates in the first debate when she acknowledged that climate change was real, criticized Republicans on their spending and called for finding a middle ground on abortion.

Before the first debate, Haley was leading behind Pence in the polls for the Republican nomination, according to an average calculated by RealClearPolitics. Now, she has surpassed him. 

“Nikki Haley was the pragmatic voice in the first debate, offering an assessment of issues like abortion that was much more grounded in practical politics,” Niven said. 

Kall said that Haley’s background as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and her experience debating others as a gubernatorial candidate contributed to her performance.

“She benefited from low expectations heading into the first debate and will undoubtedly be a larger target in Simi Valley,” Kall said. “Some recent polling has indicated that Haley could be the toughest general election opponent for Biden and this electability argument will feature prominently during the next debate.”

But whether she will gain more momentum in the second debate with her moderate perspective or take a more right-view approach on policies like her other rivals to appeal to GOP voters remains to be seen.

“Haley’s more moderate positions on abortion and climate change could be an asset in a general election against Biden, but could prove problematic to Republican primary voters,” Kall said. “Pence will likely continue to lead the charge here on the social issue front.”

Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum might not make an appearance

There’s a chance two GOP candidates might not make an appearance to the second debate this time around: Hutchinson and Burgum.

Politico first reported the requirements candidates must meet to qualify for the second GOP debate include having a minimum of 50,000 unique donors and polling at a minimum of 3% in two national surveys or one national poll and two polls conducted in two early states.

While both Burgum and Hutchinson remain confident that they will qualify, they are still polling at low numbers in the race for the Republican nomination compared to their rivals, according to an average calculated by RealClearPolitics.

Burgum was the sixth candidate to qualify for the first debate – using an unusual tactic of giving away $20 gift cards for everyone that pitched in $1 to his campaign – while Hutchinson was the last.

“Whether the final roster of candidates will include Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson will be interesting and genuinely impact the tenor and flow of the debate,” Kall said.

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