The Republican race for president has largely been about Donald Trump and his huge polling lead over everyone else.
The first debate on Wednesday night, however, provides candidates the first real opportunity to change that, without Trump on the stage with them.
The debate, which will air on Fox News Channel at 9 p.m. and take place in Milwaukee, will serve as an introduction of sorts for many of these candidates in front of a national audience. The former president’s decision to skip the debate — instead opting for an interview with Tucker Carlson — leaves eight candidates not named Trump to create some viral moment out of the six or seven minutes most will likely receive. But really, a solid 15 seconds or so, be it a well-timed jab or a masterful soundbite — could, the thinking goes, really help get that candidate better known and impress campaign donors. It’s the stuff that momentum can be built on.
But standing out will be easier for some than others. Let’s take a look at what each candidate may set out to do and extrapolate from that what is really going on in this contest.
Possibly no one needs this debate more, at this particular moment, than Florida’s governor. Since the year began, his poll numbers have gone one direction: down.
Where he was the sole potential challenger to Trump for the nomination, three campaign revamps later DeSantis has slipped into third in a few polls, leaving him looking over his shoulder more than he is looking ahead to Trump.
A good debate could go a long way to calming skittish donors and convincing window shoppers in early primary states that he is, in fact, the strongest candidate to take on Trump.
But for DeSantis, this might be a tall order. Because while he needs a big debate, in the past his debating skills have been lackluster. And unlike those one-on-one debates, on Wednesday he will have to do it with seven others on the stage.
Poll after poll has found Scott to be the most likable candidate in the field. This both counts for something but also doesn’t count for much. As it stands, voters in early presidential primary states say that while they like the South Carolina senator and his life story, this hasn’t translated to support outside of the single digits in polling.
Scott has been almost too careful with ambiguous answers on items ranging from his stance on abortion to Trump’s legal issues. To go to the next level, Scott will need to find a spot in his contest other than the affable, non-offensive guy. That might work in a two-person race where the other candidate isn’t particularly likable, but not in a multicandidate field where Scott could get a bit lost in the discussion.
Whether Scott makes moves in this debate or later, the time is ticking. Then again, Scott has something few candidates do: one of the richest people in the world willing to spend endless money to help the campaign.
Like DeSantis, Haley also really needs a good night in Milwaukee. She is interesting and has credibility. She is the only woman on the stage. She is the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador. And yet, she is lost in the crowd.
Haley, however, could have a simple goal she can actually execute: deliver as many well-rehearsed lines as possible, hoping to get the crowd to laugh or cry or applaud widely. Those 10 seconds of connection with the in-house audience can be used online to make the case to voters that she’s a cut above the rest.
Fox News announced on Tuesday morning that the Ohio businessman will share center stage with DeSantis in the debate. That means Ramaswamy’s rise in national politics has moved him ahead of governors and senators, and even a vice president who will be on the fringe on the stage.
It also makes him a target. While Ramaswamy is extremely good with rhetorical give and take, he has never really been challenged in such a hostile setting. As a result, more so than most of the contenders on the stage, his big introduction to America has equal parts risk and reward. Most of the other candidates on the stage privately feel he is a lightweight and someone in their way.
His goal is to demonstrate he belongs on this stage and not lose traction. But the knives are going to be out.
Christie has made it pretty clear that he isn’t so much running for president but to stop Trump from becoming president again. Would Christie have loved to say things directly to Trump’s face on the debate stage? Sure. But in many ways, he is probably also happy that Trump isn’t there because he can deliver lines without Trump’s cagey defense.
For the former New Jersey governor, the goal, for now, is to consolidate support from all Republicans who do have problems with Trump as their nominee (oh, and maybe to convince Democrats to donate to him).
Speaking of the “Trump is bad idea” lane, the former Arkansas governor qualified for this debate just hours before the deadline. His only goal is to try to inspire just enough people to qualify for the second one in a month.
The challenge for him is that he might get sucked into Trump bashing, which he doesn’t shy away from, but won’t let him stand out past Christie. This is a chance for him to say what he would actually like to do as president since it might be the first time Republican voters will hear him out.
Burgum has nothing to lose in this debate, nor does he have much to gain. That’s pretty low stakes for the self-financing governor of North Dakota. That said, he really met the debate’s fund-raising qualifications, by giving away $20 gift cards for those who gave him a dollar.
If this campaign is going to go anywhere, he needs to have people taking him seriously.
However, Burgum may not be able to participate in Wednesday’s debate after he injured himself this week playing basketball and was taken to the emergency room.
Pence’s goal for this debate is not unlike his goal for his campaign overall. First, it’s another chance for him to change minds in the Republican base about his decision to not stop Congress’s constitutional duty on Jan. 6. Second, is to stand up for traditional Reagan-style conservativism, which has been torn up under Trump.
It’s not clear how many Republicans will come along for that message. But the former vice president’s goal is to go beyond Jan. 6 and try to be a voice in the party.
Material from Globe wire services was included in this report.