It’s almost here! The second GOP debate between the top 2024 Republican presidential candidates who aren’t named Donald Trump starts tonight at 9 p.m. ET. There won’t be as many contenders as at the first debate last month: Ron DeSantis , Vivek Ramaswamy , Nikki Haley , Mike Pence , Tim Scott , Chris Christie , and Doug Burgum all met the RNC’s stricter threshold for entry this time; Asa Hutchinson did not. Trump, the current front-runner, is once again keeping his distance.
Tonight’s two-hour showdown is being moderated by Fox Business and Univision at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. In addition to following our live updates below, you can watch the debate on Fox Business and Fox News, in Spanish on Univison, or by catching the livestreamed broadcast on Rumble .
Tonight’s candidate staging
The Washington Post notes who’s front and center and who’s literally waiting in the wings, all based on where they are in the polls:
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will take center stage at Wednesday’s debate, with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy flanking him on either side, according to Fox Business , which is hosting the event.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) will be next to Haley and Ramaswamy, with former vice president Mike Pence and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on the wings of the stage.
Yes, the GOP primary still matters
Earlier today, Ed Kilgore dismissed the dismissals :
Let’s give voters a chance to weigh in at least minimally before dismissing them and the other candidates as extras in the horror movie of Trump’s return from what should have been a political grave. He may be an “existential threat to American democracy,” but American democracy deserves an opportunity to defend itself.
What it looks like when the frontrunner who’s up by 40 points isn’t in the building
What I’m watching for tonight: Can Ron DeSantis keep his campaign alive?
DeSantis’s campaign has been in decline for longer than the Ottoman Empire, and it is quickly reaching a terminal stage from which no escape is possible. The previous debate gave Nikki Haley a boost as a more traditional Republican alternative to Trump, eating into a share of DeSantis’s support. (DeSantis is trying to simultaneously court traditional Republicans while out-Trumping Trump – Haley is taking away the former.)
My eyebrows raised very high when I read this , in Semafor:
“If he doesn’t do well, if he doesn’t clearly establish that he’s the leader of this debate, then I think [Nikki] Haley probably moves to the second place position kind of firmly, and probably becomes a donor favorite, and probably continues to get a lot of good media treatment,” a Republican consultant backing DeSantis told Semafor. “If he doesn’t do well here, in my opinion, he’s gotta drop out — if he doesn’t want to be embarrassed.”
A Republican consultant backing DeSantis! (How’s that for loyalty?) If Haley can displace DeSantis as the (very very distant) second place candidate, he is in deep trouble. So, look for Haley to try to establish that Russia-fightin’, tax-cuttin’, Reagan-lovin’ persona. And look for DeSantis to try to rip her head off.
Reminder: Haley got the only real bump last time
One of the dominant features of the first debate in Milwaukee involved sharp clashes between Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, both of whom seemed to benefit from their fisticuffs. For Haley, the tech tyro represented a Trump surrogate (particularly on issues like Ukraine) she could attack without consequences. Haley also did Ramaswamy the favor of taking conservative establishment positions he could attack, bolstering his reputation as a MAGA Bad Boy unafraid of mixing it up with (present or former) governors and senators and vice presidents. It will be interesting to see if these two pols continue their symbiotic relationship in a second debate. Haley has heightened expectations to meet, and Ramaswamy at some point needs to make it clear he’s not running for a mid-level cabinet post or ambassadorship in a second Trump administration.
A spotlight for Dana Perino
The longtime Fox News host is moderating tonight. As the New York Times notes , it’s a big test for Perino, who has kind of kept her head down at the network:
It will be the biggest moment for Ms. Perino at Fox News since she began co-hosting “The Five” in 2011. Not known for being as provocative or partisan as many of her colleagues behind the desk, Ms. Perino, 51, has spent a good part of the last decade trying to thrive as a Bush Republican working for a network where loyalty to former President Donald J. Trump is often the ticket to high ratings and the career advancement that accompanies them.
Current and former colleagues said that she had managed to persevere at Fox by being neither a Trump supplicant nor a fierce critic. During the raucous discussions on “The Five,” she can often be seen ducking the fray, flashing a knowing smile as her co-hosts mock Mr. Trump’s liberal antagonists.
The viewership factor
NBC News’ Steve Kornacki is looking forward to seeing the ratings :
Without Trump, and with this debate airing on Fox Business Network, a lower profile outlet, will there be a drop-off in viewership? If so, how much? Will it fall below all of the 2015-16 debates? Far below? If it does, it would only buttress what the polls are suggesting: that Republican voters are tuning out what once looked like a wide open, suspenseful nominating contest.
Trump’s cynical sideshow
The former president’s counter-programing for tonight’s debate is a speech to workers at a non-union auto parts manufacturer outside Detroit.
Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones criticizes the media coverage of Trump’s visit for falsely perpetuating the idea that Trump is some populist who is going to Detroit to support striking autoworkers:
When the Trump campaign said the former president was speaking to striking autoworkers, reporters should have hedged. That is what Trump said. It is not necessarily what he will do. When additional reporting confirms that Trump was speaking to a non-union shop, that news should be reflected prominently in later coverage and analysis. This shouldn’t be difficult, and yet the press struggles.
Eric Levitz, meanwhile, offers a brief history lesson for anyone who thinks Trump is pro-labor:
When it comes to policymaking that concerns all working people as working people, however, Republicans remain as committed to the interests of bosses as they’ve ever been. Under Trump, the GOP restricted workers’ rights to organize certain categories of workplaces, made it easier for employers to bust unions, denied guaranteed overtime pay to 12.5 million workers , effectively transferring $1.2 billion from their paychecks to their bosses’ bank accounts, proposed a rule allowing companies with fewer than 250 workers to cease reporting workplace injuries and illness statistics to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), asked the Supreme Court to uphold the right of employers to include forced arbitration clauses in contracts (thereby denying workers the capacity to press complaints against their bosses in open court), and restored the right of serial labor-law violators to compete for government contracts , among other things.
DeSantis and Scott need to distinguish themselves
All seven of tonight’s debaters should feel a sense of some urgency as all of them individually and collectively are chasing a front-running candidate who will likely pay no price for ignoring them . Time to change the dynamics of this lop-sided race is steadily running out. But two candidates in particular really need a big night. One is Ron DeSantis , whose support seems to be rapidly crumbling in New Hampshire and South Carolina even as he remains far behind Trump in Iowa, on which he is betting everything. The other is Tim Scott , who was invisible during the first debate and in danger of being totally eclipsed by the woman (Nikki Haley) who appointed him to the Senate.
You have to figure that such donors and party leaders who have not already consigned themselves to a third straight Trump nomination will soon get together and anoint a single challenger while pushing everyone else towards the exit. Until recently, the odds-on favorite for that designation was DeSantis. That’s not so clear now. Tonight’s debate may make that essential “culling” of the field easier, or more complicated.
Who needs live, human debate when there’s an AI Asa Hutchinson chatbot?
Hutchinson won’t be on stage giving his own thoughts at the Reagan Library tonight, having not met the RNC qualifications, but if you to know what an “AI interface” thinks he thinks about something, he and his campaign have made sure you can get some “realistic answers”:
Cue up the Rocky theme song
The Hill asked the candidates about their pre-debate prep:
Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign told The Hill that he plans to spend time “in prayer, in scripture, and in the gym” after being in California with his family and team members in the days leading up to the closely watched event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Former Vice President Mike Pence will “get a workout in, do some light prep, and spend time with his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter,” his campaign told The Hill. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also plans to work out before the big event, his campaign said, as well as spend time with his wife and two sons. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s pre-debate routine “will include plenty of Bruce Springsteen,” his campaign said.
The other language candidates need to watch
At Politico, body language expert Joe Navarro offers some advice to the GOP hopefuls — including how Ron DeSantis “needs to chill”:
With his furrowed glabella (the area between the eyebrows), tense face and forceful vocal tone, Ron DeSantis’ nonverbal language screamed “I’m angry!” at the first debate. Anger is fine when it is warranted, but not as your default expression. Instead, the governor should strike a friendly, approachable tone at the beginning of the debate, and save the harsh frowns and agitato voice for beating back direct challenges. When he says everything in the same register of grievance, without variation or dynamics, his most important points blend in with the rest of his speech, washing over the audience. Contrast is key.
Our own Margaret Hartmann has been tracking DeSantis’s physical awkwardness for a while now. (Luckily for the governor, moderators are unlikely to ask the candidates to eat anything on stage other than their own words.)
Burgum makes it in, barely
The long-shot candidate (and North Dakota governor) only qualified on Monday, as the Bismarck Tribune reported:
[H]is campaign surprised pundits across the country on Saturday when it seemed to qualify for Wednesday’s debate stage in California thanks to a Trafalgar Group national poll that had the governor at 3.2%. The RNC on Monday night confirmed that the final slate of candidates included Burgum.
The Trafalgar poll is a departure from most of Burgum’s showings in national surveys: polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight had him averaging 1% support as of Tuesday. It’s also a reflection of the slightly better reception he’s been garnering in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where his campaign has focused much of its energy.
This is a developing story.
Will Vivek be able to make a case for himself?
In his preview of the matchup , Intelligencer’s Ed Kilgore noted everything each candidate needed to accomplish tonight, including the newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy:
The tech tyro had some breakout moments in Milwaukee but mostly came across as the absent Trump’s wingman. That’s enough to keep him aloft in national polls , where he’s virtually tied with Nikki Haley for third place in the RCP averages; he’s a relatively strong fourth in New Hampshire as well. But unless he wants to hit a ceiling whereby his main ambition would become a mid-level cabinet post in a second Trump administration, Ramaswamy needs to more clearly explain why MAGA folk should support him rather than The Master. Making himself the front-runner for the 2044 nomination contest is a questionable return on the investment of personal wealth he’s already made in this campaign.
Read the rest of Ed’s preview, including how Chris Christie will now have an opportunity to consolidate the anti-Trump vote, here .
Who won last time?
For anybody who didn’t tune in to the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, our collection of highlights and lowlights is here , and Intelligencer’s Eric Levitz rounded up the winners and losers here .
This post has been and will be updated.