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6 things to watch for in the second 2024 GOP presidential debate

(CNN) — Seven Republicans vying to be their party’s top alternative to Donald Trump in the 2024 race could seek to make the former president the central character in their second primary debate – even as Trump is skipping the California showdown for a rally in Michigan.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are set to take the stage Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

The debate, scheduled for 9 p.m. ET and hosted by Fox Business and Univision, marks a new phase in the GOP race, as the stage narrows from eight candidates from their first debate in Milwaukee last month to seven – former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson didn’t make the cut. Heightened qualification thresholds and further reductions loom for the third face-off in November.

Here are six things to watch during Wednesday’s debate:

Trump’s where?

Despite Christie’s best efforts to lure Trump to Simi Valley, telling him to “show up” and “stop being a coward,” the former president will again be absent Wednesday night, opting to give a prime-time speech before current and former union members in Michigan rather than engage with his primary rivals.

Trump’s counterprogramming attempt underscores how he and many others view the current GOP race: that he has nothing to gain from standing alongside the other candidates ahead of a contest that is clearly his to lose.

In South Carolina on Monday, the former president dismissed the debates as “stupid” and trained his attacks not on other Republicans, but on President Joe Biden, who visited Wayne County, Michigan, on Tuesday to walk the picket line with striking members of the United Auto Workers union.

Trump’s speech is unlikely to overshadow the GOP debate, but longtime Republican strategist Mike Murphy, a Trump critic, told CNN this week that the former president has little reason for concern.

“The best thing that Trump has going is that none of his opponents are running a strategy to defeat him,” Murphy said. “None of his major ones. They are just doing Trump impersonations.”

Major divides on abortion

With his recent criticism of strict anti-abortion measures in GOP-led states, Trump opened what could be the party’s most significant policy fissure.

Trump, who paved the way for Roe v. Wade’s reversal by appointing three conservative Supreme Court justices, won’t be onstage to defend his recent assertions to NBC News that bans on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, such as the one enacted by Florida under DeSantis, are “terrible” and that some conservatives “speak very inarticulately” about the issue.

But his comments gave rivals struggling for attention a new opening to attack the former president from his right flank – and several have already pounced.

“This is not the guy who ran in 2016. He’s now attacking the pro-life movement. He’s attacking states that enacted pro-life protections that had support,” DeSantis said on an eastern Iowa radio program Tuesday morning.

It’s also a cudgel that some of the more socially conservative candidates, including Pence and Scott, who both back 15-week federal abortion bans, have suggested they could use against others on the debate stage. Those targets might include Haley, who has downplayed the political feasibility of new federal abortion restrictions.

The results of the 2022 midterms, abortion-related ballot initiatives in red states and off-year races such as a Wisconsin Supreme Court election this spring suggest that Republicans could alienate much of the November 2024 electorate by sprinting right on abortion. But for primary contenders seeking to break out of the field as the strongest Trump alternative, it could be a way of appealing to the social conservatives who dominate the Iowa caucuses, which will kick off the GOP presidential nominating process in January.

Whither Ron DeSantis?

Only a few months ago, the Florida governor was believed by many Republicans to be the party’s best hope of dethroning Trump.

Now, with the first primary votes on the horizon, DeSantis has fallen back into the pack – running about even with Haley, Ramaswamy and Christie in a recent CNN/University of New Hampshire primary poll of the Granite State.

Even with Trump out of the picture at last month’s first GOP debate, DeSantis cut an anonymous figure, further fueling doubts over his political mettle and ability to translate conservative support in Florida to the national stage.

On Wednesday in California, though, DeSantis will again be center stage and under intense scrutiny from anxious donors. Like during the Milwaukee debate, Trump’s absence offers the governor another shot to distinguish himself without the threat of being upstaged or attacked by the former president.

If it’s not “now or never” for DeSantis, it’s getting awfully close.

Ramaswamy against the world – again?

No candidate benefited more from Trump’s absence from the first debate than Ramaswamy, who successfully made himself the evening’s main character with a showman’s attitude and willingness to spar with Christie, Pence and Haley, who all came out with ire trained on the youngest candidate in the field.

Ramaswamy emerged from those exchanges seemingly without a scratch after elevating himself as the Trump stand-in – an unconventional voice on a stage of largely conventional speakers.

The question heading into Wednesday night’s event: Who else will try to take on the Ohio businessman this time?

Christie has a well-known record of eviscerating lesser debate-stage presences, so if he largely failed in his bid to do the same to Ramaswamy, the prospect may not be overly appealing to others. But Ramaswamy will likely be looking, again, for a fight and the chance to dominate the post-debate analysis.

DeSantis, in particular, has reason to attempt to blunt the tech entrepreneur’s appeal – and his increasingly strong connection to a MAGA constituency that both would like to capture. Whether he is nimble enough to come out ahead in a head-to-head exchange, though, is less certain.

Haley turns focus to Trump

Haley is taking aim at Trump’s conservative credentials – not his conduct – as she works to cement her position as a leading alternative to the former president.

A modest wave of momentum from the first debate in Milwaukee follows Haley to California, where she faces a fresh test of trying to distinguish herself from the field and taking her performance to the next level.

Haley, who was at the center of a fierce foreign policy fight with Ramaswamy and a spirited disagreement over abortion policy with Pence at last month’s debate, has also been increasingly talking about Trump – under whom she served as US ambassador to the United Nations. A forceful critique of his fiscal and spending policies has given way to a broader assessment of his fitness for office.

The former South Carolina governor has been testing some of those anti-Trump lines at town hall meetings. Late last week, she told a New Hampshire voter that Trump was “thin-skinned and easily distracted.” She also said he “got weak in the knees when it comes to Ukraine.”

While that assessment has earned her support from some moderate Republicans, will her rivals try to slow her rise by pressing harder on her foreign policy views and how they fit with the current mood among the party’s base?

The shadow of Reagan

Wednesday’s debate is taking place at an iconic venue – the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The 40th president’s library played host to GOP presidential debates in 2008, 2012 and 2016. And in Trump’s absence, several candidates could seek to use the soaring backdrop of the majestic library to tap into the Gipper’s glow.

Haley has been familiarizing herself with some of Reagan’s great lines.

Scott, who struggled to break through with his optimistic message amid the fireworks of the first debate, sent supporters a fundraising email in which he drew explicit comparisons to Reagan. Its opening line – “America is at a time for choosing” – recalled Reagan’s 1964 speech on behalf of GOP candidate Barry Goldwater that launched the onetime actor into the national spotlight.

What’s not clear is whether invoking Reagan still has an effect on voters in a party that has abandoned many of his principles in recent years.

Pence, who for decades has spoken about how Reagan steered him toward conservatism, stood by his 2016 comparison of Trump to Reagan in a recent interview with CNN.

“Many people believed when he chose me, someone that had been in the conservative movement since the days of Ronald Reagan, it was evidence of the sincerity of his purpose,” he said.

But Pence also insisted the former president has strayed from those principles since then. He has urged the party to steer away from populist “imitators.”

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