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First Republican Debate Gives Trump’s Rivals a Chance to Shine Without Him

(Bloomberg) -- Republican candidates are about to start their first debate Wednesday, hoping to capitalize on Donald Trump’s absence as they fight for the 2024 nomination.

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Perhaps none of the eight challengers appearing on stage will be under more of a microscope than Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose momentum has slowed in recent months, calling into question whether he is a viable alternative to Trump.

The debate is scheduled to air on Fox News at 9 p.m. New York time. A resounding performance by DeSantis or any of the other competitors could supercharge their campaigns, drawing in fresh support — and donors — that would allow them to ramp up efforts in early primary states.

DeSantis has consistently been a distant second to Trump, but has steadily slid in polls due to a series of political missteps and campaign problems. Rivals including entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and US Senator Tim Scott have seen fresh polling gains in early voting states. The debate affords them the opportunity to harness that energy and potentially surpass DeSantis.

Trump’s absence effectively makes it a contest between DeSantis and Ramaswamy, said Larry Kawa, a Florida-based donor and fundraiser. Ramaswamy is currently third in the RealClearPolitics national polling average at 7.2%, gaining on DeSantis who’s at 14.3%.

Kawa said both needed to be cautious “not to alienate” frontrunner Trump. Like many donors, Kawa said it’s smart for Trump to avoid the stage.

Read more: Republican Hopefuls to Square Off Sans Trump: What to Watch

Others scheduled to participate include former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Hutchinson, Christie, Haley and Pence have predicated much of their rationale for running on the desire to unseat Trump as the party’s long-reigning standard bearer.

Trump has still found a way to garner attention. He plans to release an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, just as the debate begins.

His reluctance to appear on stage and subject himself to jabs from opponents underscores his souring relationship with conservative-friendly Fox News.

Trump has gained support since he was hit with the first of now four indictments alleging a wide array of crimes from the mishandling of classified documents to trying to overturn the 2020 election results.

“Donald Trump will again make clear that he’s running on the same extreme and deeply unpopular MAGA agenda the American people have rejected time and time again,” Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, said in a statement before Trump’s interview with Carlson aired.

“That same extreme and unpopular agenda will be on display in Milwaukee later tonight by MAGA Republican candidates doing their best impressions of Donald Trump,” Munoz added.

Democrats aren’t ceding the media blitz around the debate to Republicans. The Biden campaign plans to run an ad on Fox News right before the event starts.

Earlier: Biden Trolls Republicans With ‘Dark Brandon’ Ads on Foxnews.com

The campaign also launched a new ad in Wisconsin Wednesday highlighting Biden’s economic record. It’s the start of what Democrats said would be a 16-week, $25 million advertising campaign targeted at battleground states.

Wednesday’s debate is the first of three during the GOP primaries, with the next showdown scheduled for Sept. 27 in California.

--With assistance from Stephanie Lai, Bill Allison, Justin Sink and Gregory Korte.

(Updates to add details on Biden campaign ad buys in paragraphs 14-15)

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