Absent Trump Dominates GOP Debate: Rivals Struggle to Counteract His Influence


As the second Republican presidential debate is soon to take place, the candidates are confronted with an intriguing task: how to measure up to a leading contender who is noticeably absent, assuming the position of the nominee already.

Former President Donald Trump had chosen to deliver an election-style speech in Michigan, instead of participating in the debate. This approach suggests his dismissal of the primary, given the historic lead he has acquired in national polls. It also reflects the struggle the other participants have experienced in establishing a compelling argument against him. Their underperformance was evidenced in the first debate, which Trump also opted out of, when they largely overlooked his absence.

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“Trump’s greatest advantage is that his competitors do not seem to harbor a strategy to defeat him,” observed Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP strategist and a recurring critic of Trump. “They are merely impersonating him.”

The main concern for the second debate is whether any candidate can leverage Trump’s absence, to forge a stronger case against him, compelling him to rethink his strategy of essentially ignoring his rivals. Murphy argued, “I don’t fault him for skipping the second debate. Why should he attend, if they hesitate to confront him and only mimic him?”

During the initial debate, concerted attention on Trump was slight, as described by co-moderator Bret Baier, he was indeed “the elephant not in the room”. A few candidates like ex-Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas did argue against Trump’s capability to serve as the President. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina Governor, also doubted his chances of winning the general election, dubbing him “the most disliked politician in America.” Despite these isolated incidents, most other candidates were supportive of Trump winning the nomination, regardless of his 91 felony charges. They spent more time clashing amongst themselves than providing GOP voters a reason to reconsider their support for Trump, who leads them all by a substantial 40% in national polls.

Speaking of Trump’s peculiar behavior, following the initial debate, he has indicated an overt intention of positioning himself for a presumptive general election rematch with President Joe Biden. Trump is still campaigning, but at a lesser rate than his opponents, with scheduled appearances in key states like South Carolina and Iowa. However, his decision to forego the debate for a speech addressing blue-collar workers in Michigan hints at his shifting focus.

With the upcoming debate, attacks on Trump are likely to increase. Rivals, especially DeSantis, will find it tempting to question Trump’s conservative stance. With Trump holding a commanding lead in most surveys, the race remains challenging.

The biggest challenge facing all the rivals is that it does not really matter who finishes second if Trump remains far ahead of them. They have already excluded most frontal arguments they could use against him and downplayed the gravity of the multiple indictments against him.

As the Republicans chasing the former President race against time, Republican strategists believe that the candidates should use this debate to robustly challenge Trump, or they are bound to regret it later.

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