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7 things to watch for during the 2nd GOP debate

Is anyone positioning themselves for vice president? And what do candidates think about the shutdown?

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Asa Hutchinson, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Doug Burgum stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate.

Republican presidential candidates stand on stage before a Republican presidential primary debate on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee.

Morry Gash, Associated Press

On Wednesday, seven Republican candidates will appear at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, for the second presidential primary debate.

Former President Donald Trump will once again be the elephant not in the room. Instead of appearing at the debate, he will be in Detroit at the UAW strikes.

The candidates expected to appear at the debate are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Trump continues to be the front-runner in the polls. “Now his rivals are locked in on an increasingly competitive fight for second place, hoping to solidify enough support to narrow the field,” Alex Leary and Eliza Collins wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

If you’re planning on tuning into the debate Wednesday at 9 p.m. EDT, 7 p.m. MDT, here are seven things to watch for.

What the candidates say about abortion

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion loomed large in the 2022 midterms and will likely be a key issue for voters in 2024. In recent weeks, Trump has said he would not sign a 15-week federal ban on abortion. His recent comments have caused some to wonder if his position on abortion is shifting. For candidates like Pence and DeSantis who have a conservative streak when it comes to abortion legislation and who have been vocal about their positions, this may be an opportunity for them to position themselves as the anti-abortion candidate.

By contrast, Haley has taken a different approach when it comes to abortion. She said, “No Republican president can any more ban abortions than a Democrat president can ban those state laws. So my goal is, how can we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible?”

Seeing what candidates say about abortion and how voters react in the polls may forecast the future of the GOP on this issue.

Will Trump’s indictments drive more discussion?

Trump’s indictments and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots were a big topic of conversation during the first GOP debate. The former president faces 91 charges across four cases. Read more about those here.

As Trump is missing the debate for the second time, this time to go speak to auto workers in Michigan, seeing how much candidates talk about his charges and what they say will be important. In order for candidates to be present at the debate, they had to agree to support the eventual GOP nominee. As Trump’s legal challenges continue to unfold, it’s worth watching how other Republican candidates react.

The shutdown

The clock is ticking on a government shutdown, and as Saturday approaches it’s looking more likely that the federal government will not be funded for a period of time. Candidates will likely be asked to weigh in on how this will affect voters, the economy and the Republican Party.

A shutdown could impact the GOP’s favorability numbers. “When the 2013 shutdown began, the GOP’s favorability plummeted a full 10 points to 28%, the lowest number on record for either party to that point since Gallup started asking the question in 1992,” Time Magazine reported.

Will DeSantis gain back any ground?

DeSantis is second in the polls and has dropped from his high point of 40.5% in January 2023 to just under 14%.

“The pressure is on DeSantis to do really well because of the fact he is slipping in the polls and he is slipping fast,” Ford O’Connell, a Florida-based GOP strategist told The Hill. “The narrative that this is a two-person race is gone. This is a one-person race with Donald Trump dominating and leading the pack.”

It’s possible this election could be 2016 all over again: Trump had an early lead that he was able to sustain, but his legal challenges are a wild card. As new developments come in, it’s possible there could be a shift in polling, and DeSantis is still trying to position himself as the alternative.

“DeSantis is effectively running an Iowa-or-bust strategy with repeated trips to the state that holds the first nominating contest on Jan. 15,” Leary and Collins wrote for The Wall Street Journal.

Positions on Ukraine

With Republican lawmakers opposed to funding Ukraine’s war efforts without accountability, it’s likely candidates will be asked again about their position on this issue.

Last time around, Haley, Pence and Christie defended giving aid to Ukraine while DeSantis and Ramaswamy said they would trim down the amount of funding the U.S. gives to Ukraine. “I would have Europe step up and do their job,” DeSantis said.

Will any of the candidates pitch themselves as Ronald Reagan 2.0?

Ronald Reagan is a beloved figure in the Republican Party for both his policies and his political presence. As the debate takes place in a venue named after the GOP giant, Reagan may be a name on candidates’ lips.

While Mitt Romney appealed to Reaganism during his 2008 presidential run, none of the 2024 candidates have tried to pitch themselves in this way, with the possible exception of DeSantis, who has been compared to the former president. The GOP has made a decided shift away from Reaganism and that could be solidified or reversed by this debate.

Who is running for vice president?

Some candidates may be quietly lobbying for the position as Trump’s vice president or a cabinet slot. These candidates will be the ones who avoid criticizing the frontrunner harshly and who position themselves as aligned with Trump’s agenda.