A combination of photos showing Republican presidential candidates.
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Seven of Donald Trump’s rivals for the GOP presidential nomination return to the debate state Wednesday night, once again without the presence of the poll-leading Trump himself — and likely, once again, without the will to go after his greatest vulnerability: four criminal indictments that could put him in prison for decades.
The coup-attempting former president has scheduled a speech in the suburbs of Detroit, where he is likely to blame striking autoworkers’ woes on President Joe Biden’s efforts to encourage electric vehicles to fight climate change.
And if last month’s debate in Milwaukee is an indicator, the GOP candidates will — with the exception of onetime federal prosecutor and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has indicated that he wouldn’t support a convicted Trump — avoid criticizing the former president or even mentioning him much.
“Trump is too far ahead of the pack to justify the risk of long-term damage to their future ambitions in the post-Trump GOP,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican consultant in Florida.
“Trump is in a stronger position within the Republican Party than he was the last time these candidates debated,” said Joe Walsh, a former Illinois congressman who ran in the 2020 GOP primary after deciding that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies were bad for the party.
He said the candidates, and party leaders broadly, missed several opportunities to ostracize Trump, starting with the deadly assault he incited on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and continuing through four indictments, including two related directly to Trump’s actions surrounding that coup attempt. Each time, though, most of Trump’s rivals instead supported him and attacked prosecutors, and Trump’s hold on GOP voters strengthened.
“He is now firmly their champion, and nothing will break that,” Walsh said.
On the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California will be Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who was on the stage for the first debate in Milwaukee and has also indicated he wouldn’t support Trump if he were the nominee, failed to qualify for the second one. He said in a statement that he will continue to campaign for at least the next two months in hopes of gaining traction.
The Republican National Committee has scheduled a third debate for Nov. 8 in Miami, where the qualifying benchmarks will be higher still, potentially weeding out other low-polling candidates.
Many Trump critics wonder what the point of the debates is if the candidates are unwilling to engage him, especially as voting is set to start in less than four months with the Iowa caucuses. But a few see a remaining glimmer of hope.
David Kochel, an Iowa Republican consultant, pointed out that Trump’s leads in the early voting states is smaller than his national lead — meaning that voters who are paying closer attention to the race are more open to other options.
He said Haley, after her strong performance in the first debate that lifted her in the polls, is in a good position to build on that Wednesday. “If she has another moment, she could vault to second in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said.
DeSantis has held his second-to-Trump spot for nearly a year, but has seen his position erode the more he campaigns. Stipanovich said the California debate could be the best, last chance to reverse that.
“DeSantis might give Trump a couple of openhanded slaps,” he said. “Anything to stand out and change the dismal dynamic that has him always circling the drain.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Nikki Haley is the former governor of North Carolina; she is the former governor of South Carolina.