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Republican presidential hopefuls battle to close gap with Trump in second debate

Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, failed to qualify for Wednesday’s event at California’s Reagan Library, which will include just seven candidates

segundo debate republicano
Four of the seven candidates who will take part in the second Republican debate in Simi Valley. Starting at top left: Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Four indictments and a historic mug shot have only served to increase Donald Trump’s lead in the race to win the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. Just as he skipped the first primary debate, the controversial former U.S. president has announced that he will also not attend the second debate, to be held Wednesday 18.00 PT at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is a distant second in the polls, will try to recover ground. But the field remains crowded: seven presidential hopefuls will be fighting on stage to chip away at Trump’s 40-plus point lead.

The debate, however, will include fewer candidates than the first event in August. Asa Hutchinson, the former Arkansas governor, took part in the primary debate in Milwaukee, but did not meet the threshold for the second. The Republican National Committee raised the bar in an effort to narrow the field. To appear on the stage in Simi Valley, a city 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the candidates needed at least 3% of support in two qualifying national surveys and to show they have at least 50,000 unique donors, including at least 200 donors each from 20 states or territories.

Donald Trump far exceeds these two requirements, but was not on the invite list. This is presumably because he refused to sign pledges to the party committee stating that he would support the winner of the primaries. But he doesn’t need to be on the invite list. According to surveys, he is now polling above 50% among Republicans in California. Indeed, his closest rivals have preferred to campaign in other states, where the competition is closer. Trump will visit the city of Anaheim, southeast of Los Angeles, on Friday for a fundraising event.

The seven candidates who cleared the threshold for Wednesday’s debate are former vice president Mike Pence; Florida Governor DeSantis; Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott; former New Jersey governor Chris Christie; North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum; and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who stole the limelight from DeSantis at the first debate and became the star of the night.

The second debate will give the candidates another chance to close the gap with Trump. While the event is taking place, the former president will be in Detroit with the striking autoworkers. In the first debate, the former president was, on average, about 35 points ahead of DeSantis. That margin has grown to 40. In an NBC poll, the Florida governor has lost six points in three months (polling at 16% in September), while Nikki Haley has gone from 4% to 7% in the same period. A poll last week by Fox Business, the debate organizers, put Trump at 46%, DeSantis at 15%; Haley at 11% and Ramaswamy at 7%. The Washington Post and ABC, however, said the 38-year-old businessman was polling at 3%.

Haley, the only woman in the race, is coming into the California debate stronger. The former South Carolina governor has rebounded in the polls among conservative voters. She also saw a boost in support after the first debate in Milwaukee, where she quoted Margaret Thatcher. Her team said that in the three days following the first debate, the campaign raised $1 million, a milestone in her path to the primaries.

The second debate will be broadcast on Fox Business Network and Univision, a U.S.-based Spanish-language TV network. But the exclusive online livestream will take place on Rumble, a controversial social network linked to the far right. The Republican National Committee has been criticized for its decision to partner with the video-sharing platform. The committee chose Rumble in a bid to distance themselves from the big tech companies, which are targeted by the party. Founded in 2013, Rumble has been involved in several scandals due to its lax moderation policy, which allows extremist, racist and conspiracy theory videos, including those linked to QAnon, to be posted to the site.

The economy will be the main topic of Wednesday’s debate, according to organizers. This discussion will take place against the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against Detroit’s Big Three. But it’s taken for granted that the guide is just a formality. There will be space for the candidates to discuss other concerns of conservative voters in the hopes of winning over Trump supporters.

A lot is at stake. Some 169 delegates will be up for grabs in California at the March 5 primary vote, known as Super Tuesday. One of the issues expected to come up in Wednesday’s debate is border control. In August, the United States recorded the highest number of illegal family crossings in the last four years, a figure that gives ammunition to the GOP presidential hopefuls, who propose sending troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and using military force against the drug cartels.

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