Opinion: Wednesday Night's Debate Preview -- Republicans Prepare to Battle for Second Place 

Columnist Charlie Spiering writes, "The Republican voters who do watch Wednesday night will see a group of candidates fighting for second place, an unusual exercise, but one that the political establishment is desperate to see."

Charlie Spiering

August 23, 20233 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

If Donald Trump does not show up for a presidential debate this cycle, is it actually a presidential debate? Technically yes, but not really.

At this point, polls show the majority of Republicans are convinced that the former president is their man to take on Joe Biden again and battle the establishment.

A national poll published Sunday shows Trump leading DeSantis by 46 points nationally and 23 points in a new Iowa poll. So why would Republicans tune in?  

The Republican voters who do watch tonight will see a group of candidates fighting for second place, an unusual exercise, but one that the political establishment is desperate to see. It’s mostly a fantasy - Donald Trump is absent and the majority of the candidates have a chance of attracting political moderates.

All of them will try in vain to convince Republican voters to abandon Trump in 2024, but their political narratives are already tired. Gov. Ron DeSantis is currently leading the “Not Trump” field and will try to reverse his downward slide in the polls by bravely refocusing on President Joe Biden. Sen. Tim Scott will try to inspire viewers with his carefully honed optimistic campaign message. 

Some of the others appear to be talking to themselves. Former Vice President Mike Pence will continue trying to salvage his political reputation from his former running mate into a more palatable record for historians.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who repeatedly flipped from an opponent to a supporter, to an opponent of her former boss, is trying to prove to voters she is a serious candidate and not just another flip-flopping politician.

The rest of the candidates are just happy to be there. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum needs the spotlight to introduce himself to voters. Gov. Asa Hutchison cannot wait to criticize Trump on the national stage. And Trump’s former debate coach, former Gov. Chris Christie, will be an attack dog without a chew toy. 

For weeks, Christie has repeatedly called Trump a coward for refusing to debate, desperate to be the one to body-slam the former president and heroically end his campaign forever. Without a target at the debate, however, what will Christie do?

Most likely, he’ll team up with his political colleagues to attack one of the more interesting candidates in the primary field: Populist newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy. 

When Ramaswamy announced his presidential bid, he was dismissed as a long shot until he began traveling everywhere, talking to everyone about his political message which he has distilled into Ten Truths.

The message is resonating, as his support has ticked up in recent national polls of Republican voters. An Emerson College poll released Saturday showed Ramaswamy tied with DeSantis for second place nationally at 10 percent 

By now you’ve likely heard about Ramaswamy, as the establishment media has hammered him for his comments to the Atlantic magazine questioning whether federal agents were on the planes that flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11. The comment was quoted accurately, despite his false claim that he was unfairly misquoted. 

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Charlie Spiering