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First GOP debate a chance for Trump rivals to seek breakthrough

U.S. Republican presidential candidates Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are pictured in a combination photo. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

(OSV News) — Former President Donald Trump is leading his nearest rival by a 41-point margin in recent polling in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. But the upcoming first debate in the nomination process is a key opportunity for his rivals to have a breakout moment, particularly if he does not attend.

An Aug. 15 Morning Consult survey found Trump leading his nearest Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 57%-16%. But it remains to be seen whether Trump will face his rivals at the scheduled Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee.

Eight Republican candidates, including Trump, have met the Republican National Committee’s fundraising and polling thresholds required to qualify for the Milwaukee debate hosted by Fox News. However, Trump has stated he will not sign a pledge the RNC also has implemented as a debate requirement, that each candidate will support the eventual nominee, which it has dubbed the “Beat Biden Pledge.”

In August, Trump was criminally indicted for the fourth time, most recently for his alleged efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden in Georgia. NBC News reported some of Trump’s allies have advised him to time his booking in Georgia to coincide with the debate as “jailhouse counter-programming” that would draw attention away from his rivals.

Patrick Schoettmer, a professor of politics at Seattle University whose subject areas include religion and American politics, told OSV News that with or without the ex-president’s participation, the first debate “matters the most for everyone on this stage not named Donald Trump.”

“Campaigns are driven importantly by name recognition,” he said. “And one important advantage President Trump has over everyone else in the GOP field is that everybody knows who President Trump is. And like him or hate him, you’re going to have thoughts and feelings about them.”

“There’s a lot of people who might like for example, Tim Scott, but they don’t know who Tim Scott is, unless you’re from South Carolina, or you’re a news junkie,” Schoettmer said, adding break out debate moments can give such candidates “an opportunity to try to convert some of that interest into actual support.”

In addition to having to navigate the presence or absence of the current frontrunner, candidates will have to address an array of topics on which the Republican base has some points of division, including abortion.

Pro-life activists will be paying special attention to how the candidates discuss the issue of abortion, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told reporters on an Aug. 15 press call.

The group’s approach, Dannenfelser said, is “to challenge each one of the presidential primary contenders, each one on that debate stage, to be the best that they can be to communicate what they would do, should they win the privilege of being in the Oval Office. What would they advocate for as a pro-life president? And so our job is to do that, with all of them.”

Dannenfelser said it is possible that her organization, which works to elect pro-life lawmakers, would endorse a candidate during the primary “but it’s also possible that we won’t,” alluding to the group’s “very bright line that hasn’t changed” — the group’s call for candidates to “communicate your federal minimum standards,” which the group previously said should be a 15-week federal gestational limit.

Since Trump’s first presidential campaign, many Republican voters appear to have embraced his “America First” isolationist approach, impacting how candidates may speak to voters about issues such as U.S. aid to Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion of that country and immigration.

“I think that’s going to be one of the key flash points that we’re going to see candidates have,” Schoettmer said. “We see (former Vice President Mike) Pence trying to rally that old-line conservative group by giving a strong endorsement to Ukraine, even as he, you know, does an obligatory acknowledgement of Hunter Biden and suggested that’s corruption there, whereas others like DeSantis and Trump are making appeals to the isolationist wing of the Republican Party.”

Catholic voters will likely view the candidates through the same socioeconomic lenses as other Americans in their same groups, Schoettmer said. He cited more conservative Latino Catholics in California who may not like the Democratic Party’s positions on issues such as abortion or gender, but may balk at supporting a Republican candidate over their immigration stance. Whereas a similar demographic has recently been more in play in South Texas for Republicans amid issues at the U.S.-Mexico border there.

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.

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