Former President Trump’s expected absence at Wednesday’s Republican primary debate in Milwaukee presents an opportunity to the candidates on stage as they look to boost their standing in the polls.
Even with Trump not participating, the debate will likely draw the largest national audience contenders have seen so far this cycle. Additionally, the debate is the first time most of the contenders will publicly interact with each other on stage.
Here are the five candidates who stand to benefit the most from Wednesday’s debate.
Ramaswamy’s national name ID has steadily risen since he jumped into the Republican primary in February. Once considered a lower-tier candidate, the entrepreneur has drawn more attention from donors in recent weeks. The latest Real Clear Politics polling average shows Ramaswamy in third place, trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by roughly 8 points.
And his opponents and their allies have taken note. Last week, the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down called on DeSantis in a leaked memo to attack Ramaswamy by dubbing him “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.” And Monday, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s campaign criticized his recent comments calling to reduce U.S. aid to Israel in the future.
Ramaswamy could face the biggest national audience in his career so far Wednesday amid signs that he’s gaining traction in the primary. And if the telegraphing from Haley and DeSantis’s allies is any indication, he will be one of the prime targets for attacks on stage; depending on how Ramaswamy handles the incoming fire, this could elevate his stock further going into the second debate.
The former New Jersey governor and 2016 presidential candidate will likely feel right at home on Wednesday’s debate stage. Christie is a formidable debater and famously showed off this skill in 2016 when he ripped into Sen. Marco Rubio on a New Hampshire stage, in what was seen as a massive blow to the Florida Republican’s campaign. Trump’s campaign took note of Christie’s talent on the debate stage, recruiting him to act as a stand-in for Trump’s opponents at the time.
Christie has made no secret of the fact that he is running to take down Trump and often invokes his experience working for the former president and helping him with debate prep on the campaign trail. And before Trump shook up the political ecosystem in 2015, Christie was seen as one of the more bombastic rising GOP stars. Christie’s confrontational style coupled with his knowledge of working with the field’s runaway frontrunner make him a candidate to watch Wednesday night.
“I think Chris Christie is going to be the guy to watch. He’s the most skilled debater. He’s coming after Trump, DeSantis and Ramaswamy, and it’s going to be entertaining,” former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Sunday on CNN.
And like Ramaswamy, Christie was mentioned multiple times in the leaked memo from Never Back Down. The group called on DeSantis to use Christie’s likely attacks on Trump as an opportunity to defend the former president, a dynamic could lead to flare-ups between the two governors.
The stakes are perhaps the highest for DeSantis going into the first debate. Late last year, the Florida governor was seen as the young, rising Republican star who could take on Trump in an intraparty contest. But since jumping into the GOP primary in May, DeSantis has remained stagnant in second place, while Trump’s lead has only grown.
DeSantis arguably would be the No. 1 target on the debate stage with or without Trump present. The former president has launched a barrage of nonstop attacks against DeSantis, whom he and his team have dubbed “DeSanctus.” Without Trump on stage, DeSantis will still be a prime target for other candidates eyeing his second-place status. The leaked memo from Never Back Down highlighted other candidates for the governor to look out for, including Ramaswamy, Christie, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
But there’s also the possibility that DeSantis’s opponents could end up elevating the Florida governor by focusing their fire on him for the majority of the night. And depending on how DeSantis handles the attacks, his campaign could get a much-needed boost.
While Scott has not seen the same kind of surge in the polls that Ramaswamy has seen, many high-dollar donors have expressed interest in his campaign. The senator has long been known as one of the most well-liked figures in the GOP and has run a largely positive campaign. Scott could use his happy-warrior persona to stand up on the debate stage if the other candidates take a negative tone and attack each other.
Scott will also be the only Black candidate on stage, highlighting a demographic that the GOP has long struggled to gain traction with. The senator could use this opportunity to highlight his perspective on race and cultural issues that have divided the country. This was notably on display late last month when Scott traded barbs with DeSantis over Florida’s new standards on teaching Black history, which included language that students be taught enslaved people “developed skills” that benefited them under the system of American slavery.
If the subject is brought up on the debate stage, it would mark the first time Scott and DeSantis debated the issue face-to-face.
Haley is arguably one of the most qualified candidates on the debate stage, having served in South Carolina’s state Legislature, as governor, and then in the Trump administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Like many of the other candidates in the field, she has long been seen as a rising star in the Republican Party. And yet, though she had a successful campaign launch earlier this year, Haley has struggled to gain traction in the polls.
Wednesday’s debate presents a major opportunity for Haley to get out in front of a large, national audience and tout her experience on domestic and international issues. However, Haley will also have the opportunity to stand out as the only woman and woman of color on the stage. Her perspective as a woman could play well not only with Republican women but also women and voters of color outside of the Republican ecosystem.
“Do I happen to be a woman? Yes. Do I happen to be Indian? Yes. Do I happen to be a military spouse? Yes. Do I happen to be a mom? Yes. All those things are great,” Haley told Politico last week. “I think that when I become the first female president, it won’t be because I’m a woman. It’ll be because… I’m the right person for the job.”