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Four GOP candidates set to debate as Haley seeks a breakout moment

Four contenders vying for the Republican presidential nomination will take the debate stage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Wednesday night, only six weeks before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nominating contest. Former president Donald Trump, who continues to lead the GOP field in national polls by a wide margin, is skipping the event once again.

The two-hour debate will start at 8 p.m. at the Frank Moody Music Building at the University of Alabama, and stream on all NewsNation platforms. This might be the last official debate organized by the Republican National Committee, which had raised the polling and small donor thresholds that each candidate had to meet to qualify. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy will be onstage. Here’s what to watch.

The GOP candidates have challenged Trump to varying degrees at recent debates, but alarms of authoritarianism that the former president has been striking during some of his recent rallies offer a new opening to persuade voters who are wary about another four years of Trump. The former president, who refuses to accept his 2020 election loss, has vowed to take revenge on his political opponents if he returns to the White House, and last month declared he would “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” echoing language that several historians noted has been used by dictators to dehumanize people in their countries. In a sign that he is sensitive to his critic’s warnings, he tried turn that criticism back on Biden by suggesting the President has fascist tendencies. Candidates such as Haley have already warned voters that Trump’s “chaos, vendettas and drama” would distract from more important priorities. Those concerns have resonated with some undecided voters. But she and her opponents have a narrowing window to make those arguments — and Wednesday night might be one of their last chances before a major prime-time audience.

The former South Carolina governor has been the GOP candidate to watch as she has pulled even with or surpassed DeSantis in some national and Iowa polls while holding the second-place position behind Trump in New Hampshire. That momentum will make her a key target onstage Wednesday night. Her campaign and her super PAC have been spending more on the airwaves as donors line up behind her effort. She has gained some key endorsements — such as the backing of Americans for Prosperity Action, the powerful political network led by conservative billionaire Charles Koch — as well as such vocal supporters as JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who urged donors, including Democrats, to give to her campaign at a recent conference. This week, Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and a major Democratic donor, gave a quarter of a million dollars to SFA Fund, the super PAC aligned with Haley’s bid. Though DeSantis’s campaign and an allied super PAC were seeded by their own cast of wealthy players, the DeSantis campaign has been quick to criticize Haley as a pawn of “liberal Democrat billionaires” — claiming that it is evidence that she is more liberal than he is. Christie, the former New Jersey governor, has accused her of obscuring her real positions on issues; and there’s no doubt that Haley and Ramaswamy will clash as they have in other debates.

Republicans are still struggling to find a winning message after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — and it is likely to be a point of contention Wednesday night. The Democratic sweep in Virginia’s recent legislative race signaled how potent this issue could be in 2024 as voters decisively flipped both chambers, denying restrictions on the procedure that some red state governors — including DeSantis, who signed a ban on the procedure at six weeks — have enacted. Haley had won accolades from donors and strategists for what seemed to be a more palatable message — focusing on consensus at the federal level, stating she could sign any ban that would pass Congress, while asserting that she “doesn’t judge anyone for being pro-choice.” But she surprised attendees at a recent Christian conservative gathering in Iowa where she said she would sign a six-week abortion ban if she were still governor of South Carolina. That position is unlikely to go over well in New Hampshire, where Republican primary voters tend to be more socially liberal than Iowa. Christie, who has been battling Haley for second place in New Hampshire, charged that Haley’s answers on abortion demonstrate, in his view, how she has often been elusive in defining where she stands. He noted that before more moderate audiences in New Hampshire, Haley’s emphasis had been on not allowing the issue to divide people, and accused her of offering a different message when speaking before a very conservative audience in Iowa. Look for Christie, who has said he would not sign a six-week national abortion ban, to try to pin Haley down on that issue on the debate stage.

The Florida governor will once again need to reassure donors and voters that his campaign is on a sustainable trajectory after the turmoil within his operation in recent weeks. Long-running tensions between his campaign and Never Back Down, the well-funded super PAC supporting his bid, have erupted into the open with a series of high-profile departures from the group, including the chief executive officer and his replacement — who served in that role less than two weeks — as well as the former chairman of the group. But DeSantis has plowed ahead with a busy campaign schedule and blistering attacks questioning Haley’s conservative credentials. His advisers point to his vigorous performance in a Fox News debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week as a reminder of how he would make the conservative case against Joe Biden and Democrats in a general election. DeSantis is fresh off a tour of all of Iowa’s 99 counties, and advisers say he will be eager Wednesday night to remind primary voters why he “is the only one onstage who can defeat Donald Trump for the nomination.” The Trump campaign and its allies have continued to target DeSantis — while taking a notably less aggressive approach with Haley — mocking his effort as a “dumpster fire.” The Florida governor has shrugged off those attacks, calling out Trump for refusing to debate and labeling Haley in a recent radio interview as “a last gasp of a failed Republican establishment from yesteryear.”

Previous debates have revealed substantive foreign policy disagreements among the GOP candidates as Republican primary voters increasingly drift toward isolationist views, objecting to continued aid supporting conflicts abroad — from Afghanistan to the effort to help Ukraine defend itself after the Russian invasion. Trump has helped shape that debate. This summer, he called on Republicans in Congress to withhold military support for Ukraine until the Biden administration cooperates with their investigations into the president and the business dealings of his son Hunter Biden. Ramaswamy has called for cutting off aid to Ukraine altogether and ultimately phasing out U.S. aid to Israel, drawing sharp criticism from some of his rivals. On the campaign trail in Iowa, Ramaswamy recently said Congress should reject Biden’s request for aid to Ukraine and Israel, warning that the U.S. could be making the same kinds of mistakes “that we made after 9/11.” Christie and Haley, by contrast, have rejected Ramaswamy’s argument and both have been staunch advocates for standing with Ukraine and Israel. The former New Jersey governor has visited Ukraine and Israel this year in a show of solidarity for those nations. He has faulted Trump for not doing more to secure peace in the Middle East and for failing to forcefully confront the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Haley has said America cannot entrust Trump with their national security concerns, accusing him of being “confused” about who are America’s allies and who are their adversaries. Amid objections from conservative House Republicans — many of whom are opposed to sending more aid to Ukraine — Biden’s proposed $110.5 billion national security package is stalled in Congress, making it a ripe topic for debate Wednesday night.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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