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Without Trump, debate gives Republican hopefuls chance to build momentum

Former president has decided not to take part in event as rivals line up for party’s nomination
This combination of photos shows Republican presidential candidates. Top row from left: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Bottom row from left: former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

It doesn’t happen often, but it’s happening tonight: Donald Trump is spurning the chance to appear on prime-time television.

That makes the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee a rare and perhaps critical opportunity for the bulk of Trump’s rivals to make their case to a national audience — many of them for the first time.

Make no mistake, however, the former president’s presence will be felt.

“As I like to say, he’s in the room whether or not he’s in the room,” said Steven D. Cohen, a communications professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Md.

“Each candidate is trying to have a breakout moment. And whether they get that through an image, an attack or a memorable statement, they have to break out. Because right now Trump is far and away the front-runner.”

The rest of them, of course, are decidedly not.

Not even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the man many observers and supporters had tapped back in January as the heir apparent, only to watch an uninspired, charisma-free campaign drag his poll numbers into the mid-teens.

“I’ll tell you, he’s got to walk a little bit of a tightrope in how he talks about Trump,” Cohen said.

“He has to show that he has the chops, that he has what it takes to take on Joe Biden, but he has to do it without alienating pro-Trump voters — or even without alienating Republicans in general.”

Under normal, pre-Trump circumstances, the contest would be all but over. A CBS News poll out this week showed the former president with a commanding 62 per cent lead among likely Republican primary voters.

“As long as Trump commands a solid, committed base, he’s in control,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

Through four separate criminal indictments — Trump plans to surrender in Georgia on Wednesday, quashing any post-debate coverage of his rivals — that base has shown no signs of abandoning him, Rozell said.

“Party leaders and donors want nothing more than for Trump to plead a deal and step aside from running,” he said.

“Given Trump’s intense base support, they are not saying out loud that they would like the party to move on. Ultimately, they fear he is not a strong general election candidate and will sink Republicans down-ticket.”

For the moment, at least, the polls suggest otherwise. But Trump’s escalating legal challenges also help explain why DeSantis is still in the race.

“Under other circumstances — with donors abandoning him and his polls lagging — DeSantis would depart early and live to fight another day,” Rozell said.

“Given that he remains second choice still for many, he has an incentive to stay in the race in case Trump exits.”

That puts the man once billed as a Republican Trump-slayer in an unenviable position: polling at a dismal 16 per cent, according to the CBS News poll, and yet likely to be a popular target on the debate stage.

Another hopeful looking to boost his national profile will be Vivek Ramaswamy, a former biotech entrepreneur who likes to channel Trump-style disdain for traditional political guardrails to curry favour with the MAGA set.

The self-described “America First conservative” and “American nationalist” has been polling recently in third place behind Trump and DeSantis, leading a pack of would-be contenders that has yet to crack double digits.

“Three hours of solid debate prep this morning,” Ramaswamy said Tuesday on the social media platform X alongside a video of him playing tennis shirtless.

“Ramaswamy, who is this incredible, upstart, young, telegenic, successful business person, wants to get as much attention as possible,” said Cohen.

“I think getting attacked by DeSantis or other candidates, for him, is a great thing, because it only increases his stature.”

Chasing Ramaswamy in the CBS poll was former vice-president Mike Pence at five per cent, followed by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at three per cent.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who’s not shy about attacking Trump directly, was tied with Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and the only woman in the field, at two per cent.

“Chris Christie is the most interesting candidate on the Republican side,” Cohen said. “He’s the only one who’s willing to take on Donald Trump head on. He’s willing to say what no other Republican is willing to say. And he’s willing to do that publicly.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former New Hampshire governor Asa Hutchinson, who round out the debate field, were tied near the bottom of the poll at one per cent each.

A handful of other candidates, including Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, former Texas congressman Will Hurd, conservative radio personality Larry Elder and Michigan executive Perry Johnson did not qualify to participate.

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