The candidates who will gather for the second Republican presidential debate tonight face an unusual challenge: how to take on a front-runner who’s not on stage and is already acting as if he’s the nominee.
Trump’s inclination to look past the primary, even before it’s officially begun, partially reflects the historic lead he has amassed in national polls. But it also derives from the failure of the other candidates to formulate a clear line of argument that might threaten him. That failure was on display during the first debate, which he also skipped, when almost all of the field largely ignored him.
“The best thing that Trump has going is that none of his opponents are running a strategy to defeat him,” said Mike Murphy, a long-time GOP strategist who has become a frequent Trump critic. “None of his major ones. They are just doing Trump impersonations.”
The key question for the second debate may be whether anyone in the field can use Trump’s absence to make a stronger case against him – and force him to reconsider his strategy of virtually ignoring the field. “I can’t blame him for skipping the second debate,” Murphy said. “If they are not going to engage him, and they are just going to imitate him, then he doesn’t have to be there.”
At the first debate last month, the candidates devoted very little attention to Trump, whom co-moderator Bret Baier accurately described as “the elephant not in the room.” Former Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, as usual, argued that Trump was unfit to serve as president, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley questioned his capacity to win a general election, calling him “the most disliked politician in America.” Haley, who served in his Cabinet as ambassador to the United Nations, also jabbed Trump over the increase in the national debt during his presidency.
But those were little more than momentary exceptions in the 90-minute encounter. Apart from Christie and Hutchinson, all of the candidates indicated they would support Trump if he wins the nomination, despite the 91 felony criminal charges he’s facing. The candidates spent much more time sparring with each other than offering any reason for GOP voters to reconsider their support of the man who leads all of them by as much as 40 percentage points in national polls.