Republican presidential hopefuls who have been reluctant to take on front-runner Donald Trump all year now face a new foe as they take the debate stage Wednesday night: A calendar with just over two months left before voting starts with the Iowa caucuses.
Only 68 days remain before voters begin casting ballots, giving the remaining candidates little time to make the case against the coup-attempting former president they have failed to make since their campaigns began this spring ― with the notable exception of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I fear it’s getting late,” warned Marc Short, an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence, who dropped out of the race last month.
Some observers, both Trump supporters and critics, believe that the ex-president has effectively won the nomination already, given his large polling leads in the states that vote first in the primary calendar and even larger leads nationally.
“It’s over,” said Trump backer Tyler Bowyer, who was among the 11 fraudulent Trump electors in Arizona and is now a Republican National Committee member from that state.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who ran against Trump in 2020 after becoming a vocal critic of his policies and behavior, went even further, arguing that Wednesday night’s debate, the third the RNC is hosting for the 2024 presidential primary, is a waste of everyone’s time.
“Nobody will watch and nobody cares,” Walsh said. “Unless something unforeseen happens, Trump will be the nominee.”
But Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Christian conservative leader in Iowa, said Trump’s support there is not solid, and there is a path for both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
“There’s plenty of time. Trump himself, along with his support, is fragile,” Vander Plaats said. “If I’m Haley or DeSantis [Wednesday] night, I focus on the need to win the White House with coattails that will benefit all down-ballot federal and state races. America’s future is too important to bet on a candidate who is dividing his time between being on the stand in a courtroom defending himself versus being on a stage campaigning for America.”
Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant and another Trump critic, has long argued that most primary voters even in the early voting states ― Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina ― do not really start paying close attention to the race until late autumn, meaning there is a good opportunity for the best-positioned candidates to make their move.
“There is time,” said Murphy, adding that candidates cannot waste any of it going after each other. “A squabble is a distraction. They need to focus on Trump.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held back from strong criticism of former President Donald Trump during prior debates.
So far, though, candidates have largely avoided criticizing Trump, who has skipped the debates in favor of an interview with fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson in August and then a rally with non-union autoworkers in September.
Christie has hammered at Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt as an unforgivable assault on democracy, speaking about it in debates, campaign events and media interviews. But the other candidates have been far more circumspect.
Haley was the first to criticize Trump in the August debate, but she attacked him not for his actions leading up to Jan. 6, but on his record of increasing the federal debt. She subsequently argued that Trump was the least-liked politician in the United States and that he could not win the general election. At the second debate, she said Trump did a poor job of protecting the United States from China.
DeSantis has also criticized Trump during the debates ― for not showing up at them.
Amy Tarkanian, a former chair of the Nevada Republican Party who like Murphy believes that Haley has the best shot of winning next year’s general election, said she understands Haley’s quandary.
“It’s a position I don’t envy. She has to walk a tightrope,” Tarkanian said. “She is having to take swings at the MAGA king. But she can’t upset the MAGA followers too much.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Ohio businessman Vivek Ramaswamy are the remaining two candidates on the debate stage in Miami. Scott has not offered any criticism of Trump during the first two debates, while Ramaswamy has repeatedly praised him.
Of the five, four raised their hands during the first debate when asked by a moderator whether they would support Trump even if he were convicted of one of the many felonies he is facing, should he wind up the eventual nominee. Only Christie said he would not.
For his part, Trump is staging a rally for himself at the same time as the debate. He will be just 10 miles away in Hialeah, a majority Cuban-American city where in the 1990s a mayor suspended from office because of a federal corruption indictment nevertheless won the job back while facing a prison sentence after his conviction.