The enduring consensus is that the Republican primary debates won’t change the dynamics of the race as long as former President Donald Trump retains his massive lead and as long as his deepening legal woes don’t threaten his candidacy.
Dr Jacob Thompson, the Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and the former head coach of the debate team at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, describes the debate to The Independent on Wednesday afternoon a few hours before the candidates take the stage in Miami as the fight for “second place”.
Alternatively, it’s a battle for who will take the mantle if Mr Trump becomes a “non-viable candidate”.
Dr Thompson notes that “the future is hard to predict. We learned that very well in 2016. So you never know what could happen and that's why so many people are still in the race”.
“The significance has been greatly reduced, I'm almost tempted to say rendered useless,” Mitchell McKinney, professor of political communication and Dean of the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences at The University of Akron, tells The Independent of the debates.
Dr McKinney notes that a few months ago, “the decision for Donald Trump to stay away from the primary debates, to not participate, was questioned. I think that strategy has proven very useful for him, notwithstanding the fact that he’s tied up in court”.
“What he did in 2016 was to use the primary debates to sort of summarily one by one take down his opponents. And he did that through ... taunting and name-calling ... it’s become clear now that Donald Trump made the assessment that he was not willing to subject himself to that same treatment,” he adds.
With all that in mind, here are five things to watch out for in tonight’s debate:
Will Haley continue to take centre stage?
Dr Thompson says he mainly looking out for two things – can former UN Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley “continue to perform incredibly well in the debates, creating distance between herself and the other candidates?”
The second is if her fellow South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott “can really enter the fray, I expect there to be a lot of back and forth between [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis and Haley, and I'm wondering if it gives Scott a chance to shine in his kind of positive optimistic vision for the Republican Party”.
Dr McKinney says Ms Haley has placed herself in the last of three camps in the GOP primary – those attacking Mr Trump head-on, those staying away from criticising the former president at all, and those attempting to criticise Mr Trump without upsetting his base.
He adds that she “has smartly figured out” a way to “question Donald Trump, his presidential performance, his decisions”. She will attack Mr Trump, but only “on the policy and issue-level, where she gets into some details and has facts and figures, whether it's domestic policy, whether its budget, whether it's international foreign policy”.
“She stays away from the in-the-gutter, personal character attacks, and I think that strategy allows her to be seen” as an “adult in the room... she attacks him, but it is not the [former New Jersey Governor] Chris Christie attack,” Dr McKinney notes.
“I think Nikki Haley has performed very well, I don’t see any reason why we would expect any different ... Christie will continue to go after Trump and [biotech entrepreneur] Vivek [Ramaswamy] will continue to try to be Donald Trump on the stage ... I don’t see anything fundamentally changing,” he adds.
Will the DeSantis attacks on Trump keep coming?
Dr McKinney says that the Florida governor appears to be becoming more comfortable attacking Mr Trump as the campaign goes on.
After not going after the former president in the first debate, he “kind of dipped his toe in the water” in the second debate, arguing that Mr Trump is unelectable, an argument weakened by recent polling showing Mr Trump ahead of President Joe Biden.
Dr McKinney notes that Mr DeSantis’s debate performances “certainly have not helped him ... and some of that seems to be, although he's been governor, his lack of preparation for the national stage”.
He adds that “we've seen several faux pas of campaign strategy and other things coming from the DeSantis campaign,” noting that he’s all over the place on attacking or not attacking Mr Trump.
“His debate performances and use of these debates have simply demonstrated there's some awkwardness there” and a “lack of preparation – certainly not in any way as prepared as Nikki Haley,” he says.
On the other hand, Dr Thompson says Mr DeSantis’s “approach is consistent and doesn't involve a ton of creativity. I don't mean that negatively – he's found something that works and he's sticking to it.
“What's working for him are his talking points about successes in Florida – MAGA conservatism will bring former Trump voters ... He's taken a slightly more aggressive approach toward Donald Trump recently, but it's always kind of toeing the line, remaining respectable.”
“He's really looking to secure Trump voters and so he wants to do that in a way that is as effective as possible,” he adds.
Tim Scott: Does the GOP want a happy warrior?
As many of the GOP’s most dedicated supporters, many of them backing Mr Trump, want nothing more than grievance politics and thrashing the left.
In that environment, Mr Scott is attempting to break through with soaring rhetoric and a happy warrior campaigning style. But the question is, does the GOP want that?
“People are voting against someone instead of for someone ... it really makes negativity important, because people want to hear why they want to be voting against the other person, instead of how great a candidate is,” Dr Thompson says.
“I'll also say, though, that the fundamentals of American optimism may not have completely evaporated yet. We saw Trump really capitalize on grievance politics in 2016. And the country has been through hard things. But the country has always gone through hard things,” he adds.
He argues that the US has been an “optimistic nation” for a long time. “So I think that it's technically a mistake to only stress the negative and that it's possible that a candidate with an optimistic message, even today's Republican Party could break through”.
Dr McKinney adds that “his issue positions and his narrative contains those elements” that are traditionally Republican.
“Nikki Haley has had some very useful responses to Tim Scott that have weakened Tim Scott's appeal somewhat in terms of the effectiveness of his arguments and his lines of attack,” he notes.
Christie: ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’
Mr Christie has been waging what’s seen by many as a kamikaze campaign to take down Mr Trump, so far to no avail.
“I think Chris Christie just wants to watch the world burn ... he's a bomb thrower. And I think he's going to continue throwing bombs,” Dr Thompson says. “He's going to accuse everyone on the stage of kind of kowtowing to Donald Trump, not being able to beat Donald Trump and he’ll continue to criticize Trump ... I predict more of the same from Christie.”
Dr Thompson adds that “it's not impossible that the metrics for the fourth debate come out and Christie would be on the edge or maybe not able to meet them. So he might try something a little more radical in this debate, to bolster himself one last time so that you can stay in the following rounds”.
“He goes to these forums and gets booed, and he continues to take on Trump. And that's his line,” Dr McKinney says. “To give him credit, I think this is what he fundamentally believes.”
Will Trump-stand-in Ramaswamy be sidelined?
“I see him trying to” remain as a stand-in for Mr Trump “and kind of turning stuff up to 11,” Dr Thompson says of Mr Ramaswamy.
“I predict that he'll be more marginalized in this debate, that the three candidates that I think have a puncher's chance would be DeSantis, Haley and Scott, and that they will tend to focus their discussion on each other, marginalizing both Christie and Ramaswamy,” he adds.
“They see him as not a member of their club, which in many ways he is not,” Dr Thompson says of Mr Ramaswamy, who’s in his late 30s and has never held public office.
“He's gotten attention by being loud, by saying incendiary things, and by being non-traditional, and so he'll try more of that,” he adds, noting that his rivals “may try the good parenting approach – when your child's having a tantrum, you kind of ignore them, and then all of a sudden, three minutes later you notice the tantrum is over”.
“By paying attention, you only magnify the effect of it,” he adds.
What could bring Trump back to the debate stage?
When asked what it would take for Mr Trump to return to the debate stage, Dr Thompson mentioned dropping polls and sky-high ratings for the debates as possible incentives.
“If you see a big jump for Haley, Scott, or DeSantis, and a big decline, measurable in the high single digits, that might be enough for him ... because he is very good at understanding the media ... that he needs to be a bigger part of the conversations that people are paying attention to,” he said.
“Another thing that might bring him back is record viewing ... if the numbers are off the charts for this debate, and seemed like they would follow suit for debate number four, he might come back for that,” he said, adding that “if something measurable happens for him in any one of his many pending legal cases, he might decide that he needs a bigger platform”.
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