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James Pindell | ANALYSIS

GOP presidential candidates get set for their second debate. But, um, what’s the point?

The seven GOP candidates who will be participating in the second presidential debate Wednesday night, plus Donald Trump.Wire and Globe Photos

Anyone who cares about democracy should advocate for as many televised political debates as possible.

Debates are the rare opportunity to hear candidates go beyond the usual talking points and stump speeches, in theory, so voters can see the contrasts among them. Even on a stage, in front of cameras and an audience, viewers can catch a glimpse of how candidates might act in a private, high-stakes negotiation.

All of the above may well happen Wednesday night, when Republicans gather for their second presidential primary debate, hosted by Fox Business Channel. Or the seven candidates who qualified for it may simply offer tired variations on what we’ve heard before.


Which leads to the lingering question surrounding this debate: What exactly is the point?

Increasingly, there isn’t a even Republican presidential contest. Frontrunner Donald Trump has a 43-point lead nationally over the rest of the field, a lead that’s growing. And once again, he’s skipping the whole thing. Advertising rates for the debate have reportedly fallen significantly because viewership is expected to be down.

So we’re left with a contest for second place — which appears to be growing ever more distant from first.

That’s something of a change from the first debate. That event, held in late August in Milwaukee, had a few interesting things to watch.

That was the first time much of America had heard from candidates like entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. Furthermore, the debate came at a pivotal time for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who badly needed to reset his tanking campaign.

By now the Americans who cared to watch the first debate already have a first impression. DeSantis has continued to slide in the polls. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has generated some momentum, but she’s far from being any threat to Trump.


So, again, what’s the point of this debate?

We should talk about what it could be. To start, it could be about the fierce debate among Republicans over additional Ukraine funding or, for that matter, whether to fund the US government. The setting, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, could force a discussion about whether the GOP is still the party of Reagan or if it’s Trump’s party — the seemingly existential question for Republicans.

But even there were consensus on the big issues splitting the party, so what? Ukraine funding will still require a bipartisan agreement. The government appears likely to be shut down no matter what is said on the debate stage. And, well, Reagan left office in 1989.

Is the debate, as some contend, a moment to witness the future of the Republican Party onstage? Is it a preview of a future presidential race? Maybe. But among the candidates, Chris Christie has run for president before, Mike Pence has already served as vice president, DeSantis, and Burgum are term limited. It’s not exactly a stage of rising stars.

Keep this in mind: National polls and polls in early states show that only 6 to 10 percent of Republican voters say they’re undecided. How those voters respond to this debate could help determine which candidate solidifies second place. But again, at this point, it won’t make a dent in Trump’s lead.

Nevertheless, there should be more debates, even if Trump refuses to participate. They may still determine the future of the GOP because no one can ever predict what will happen onstage.


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James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.