Rivals seeking political oxygen in a Trump-less showdown
The leading Republican candidates for the 2024 White House race will gather on Wednesday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the first party-sanctioned primary debate.
Former President Donald Trump is the metaphorical elephant in the room.
Due to his absence, the remaining candidates will have a harder time attracting Republican voters and making the case that they should be the party’s standard-bearer rather than the nominee in the last two elections.
Mr Trump is the current favorite of more than half of likely Republican primary voters, so the rest of the field will need to show why they are better than him.
Some are doing this directly, while others are doing it indirectly. We will have to wait and see which strategy is better – or if Mr Trump’s dominant position makes them all equally disastrous.
Here are the candidates who have qualified for the debate. During his time as president, the former president was too often distracted and derailed, according to the Florida governor. Mr DeSantis believes Mr Trump could have accomplished more while in office if he had been more focused.
DeSantis also criticised his fellow Florida resident for dwelling too much on the past, particularly his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, and being too mired in scandal to win the White House in 2020.
“We will lose the election if it becomes a referendum on what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago,” he said during a recent campaign stop in Iowa, referring to Mr Trump’s indictment for mishandling classified information. During his campaign, the former vice president walked a fine line. Instead of voting for the leading man, he wants Republican voters to choose the understudy based on his four-year record in office.
For the Indiana politician, the most obvious – and potentially most fraught – tactic is to emphasize his refusal to give in to Mr Trump’s pressure to overturn 2020 results.
He said in his campaign announcement speech that he had to choose between him and the constitution. It was the constitution I chose, and it will always be the constitution I choose.”
Aside from that, he has sought to differentiate himself by highlighting his support for traditional conservative policies – such as abortion, taxes, and foreign policy.
According to polls, however, his message has alienated Trump supporters while failing to convert anti-Trump Republicans. He’ll have to find a way to win over some Republican voters in one of those two camps during the debate.
Florida’s governor is presenting himself to Republicans as a conservative who can deliver the results Mr Trump promised in 2016 but was unable to achieve. In addition to loosening gun-ownership laws, restricting sex and gender identity education in schools, and tightening voting rules, he points to his record as governor of Florida.
It seemed earlier this year that it might be effective for party faithful looking to move on from Mr Trump. So far, it hasn’t worked. Mr DeSantis will have the best opportunity to revive that message during the Milwaukee debate.