The third Republican presidential debate will take place Wednesday evening in Miami with the smallest number of candidates yet: just five candidates. That’s down from the boisterous pack of eight who screamed and shoved their way through the first meet in Milwaukee in August.
Fewer candidates will mean less competition for time, which could make it easier for a candidate to stand out and, at least potentially, be considered Donald J. Trump’s main rival. (The former president, who skipped the previous two debates, will hold a rally outside Miami while his rivals face off.) And debate time is fast approaching — for now, he doesn’t there is only one more on the programon Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — so candidates will be looking to make the most of this televised moment.
The changing landscape will most likely alter the strategic calculations of candidates qualified under Republican National Committee rules: Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and former ambassador to the United Nations; Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida; Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey; Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur; and Tim Scott, the senator from South Carolina.
Here are some things to watch for during the two-hour debate on NBC.
It’s Nikki Haley’s time
Ms. Haley has attracted more attention in recent weeks, as have other candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence – lost support or gave up. She has an opportunity to use her momentum to eclipse Mr. DeSantis, her most serious rival in the race, to become the best alternative to Trump.
“Haley is now the only candidate with a clear path to breakthrough against Trump,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime adviser to Republican presidential candidates who is not involved in this campaign. He said he expected the debate to be “about her doubling down on her moment as the race heats up.”
Ms. Haley has a choice here: Will she spend more time on her attacks on Mr. Trump or on challenging Mr. DeSantis? His campaign released a video on Tuesday attacking the governor on energy policy, suggesting Mr. DeSantis should not expect an easy night.
Can DeSantis still play the role of favorite?
In the first two debates, Mr. DeSantis played the role of favorite, attacking his opponents only when he was hit first. That may no longer work as he comes under increasing pressure to slow Ms. Haley’s rise in the polls and reassure voters who may have come to question her political agility and strength as a general election candidate.
That has not been an easy task for Mr. DeSantis, largely because of Mr. Trump’s attacks on everything from his foreign policy credentials to his size. But Mr. DeSantis is on friendly ground in Miami: he was re-elected as governor last year in a rout. And this week he drew the Kim Reynolds endorsement, the governor of Iowa. Mr. DeSantis is banking on his performance in the state’s first caucuses on January 15.
But in a sign that Mr. DeSantis’s status could be diminishing, Mr. Christie said he would likely largely ignore his rival tonight.
“What are you attacking?” he said in an interview. “If he says something that I think deserves a response, I will respond to it. But I spent four hours with him on the debate stage and I didn’t hear him say anything that warranted a response.”
A world in turmoil
Foreign policy, with a few notable exceptions over the years, has not proven decisive in presidential elections. But the war in Ukraine and bloodshed in the Middle East are expected to feature prominently in Wednesday’s debate.
The question of American aid to Ukraine has divided the Republican Party, and could show sharp differences between the candidates over whether they would follow Mr. Trump’s isolationist and populist path. Candidates will likely be pressed on whether they support House Speaker Mike Johnson’s first major proposal, a plan to tie money for Ukraine to a border bill unpopular with Democrats.
Although the Republican Party is more unified in its support for Israel (unlike the Democratic Party), the conflict has sparked some of the harshest criticism of Mr. Trump.
At the Republican Jewish Coalition rally last month, Ms. Haley, who has more foreign policy experience than her rivals on stage, attack Mr. Trump for calling Hezbollah “very smart” and calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weak days after Hamas’ deadly attack on Israeli settlers.
Mr. DeSantis leveled a similar criticism of the president while campaigning in New Hampshire in October. “Now is not the time to do what Donald Trump did by attacking Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, by attacking the Israeli Defense Minister, by somehow saying that Hezbollah was ‘very smart » » he said.
Does anyone else have a chance?
Of the three undercards, Mr. Scott is, in the eyes of the Republicans, the only one who seems to have a good chance of breaking through. So far, he has been overshadowed by increasingly high-profile opponents, and the likelihood that this debate will focus on Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis won’t make his job any easier.
Mr. Ramaswamy proved to be an energetic debater in the first debate, but in the second debate he became more of a target. With him running in the single digits in many polls, he doesn’t appear to be a major force in the race going on tonight. And Mr Christie could hardly be more out of step with much of the Republican Party with his relentless attacks on Mr Trump: he is regularly booed at Republican events.
Someone is there?
A major question is how many people will watch. The audience fell to only less than 10 million during the second debate, compared to 12 million during the first debate. Unless Mr. Trump makes a dramatic last-minute appearance on stage, this seems unlikely to change.
The decline in viewership is perhaps no surprise given Mr. Trump’s dominance. While Mr. Trump enjoys a wide lead over the rest of the Republican field in most polls, the race may feel like it’s over before a single vote is cast – even though many Republicans are are declared at least open to the nomination of someone other than Trump. Mr. Trump.