With former President Donald Trump out of tonight’s debate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who has consistently polled in second place nationally and in early-voting states – could be positioned to face the sharpest scrutiny Wednesday night, as other contenders seek to replace him as the party’s top alternative to Trump.
“We’ll be ready,” DeSantis said Monday. “I think that with Donald Trump not being there, I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m going to be probably the guy that people are going to come after.”
The Florida governor also continued to distance himself from a memo from the super PAC Never Back Down, which last week advised him to “hammer” entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and defend Trump if he is attacked by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“That’s a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not something that I’ve read, and it’s not, not reflective of my strategy,” DeSantis said Monday.
However, DeSantis has unusually close ties with the super PAC. He has outsourced many typical campaign functions, including early-state organizing, to the super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums. DeSantis frequently appears at events as a “special guest” of the super PAC.
Other candidates also plot their strategies: Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur who has risen in polling in recent weeks, appears to have become a significant factor in the race in his rivals’ eyes.
Another contender, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, attacked Ramaswamy on Monday, in a potential preview of a debate-stage showdown.
Haley said Ramaswamy is “completely wrong” for his call to reduce US military aid to Israel. During an interview with Russell Brand on Rumble last week, Ramaswamy claimed he would cut off additional aid to Israel in 2028, after the current $38 billion US aid package expires.
“This is part of a pattern with Vivek—his foreign policies have a common theme: they make America less safe,” Haley said on Twitter.
Ramaswamy, for his part, tweeted a video of himself, shirtless, practicing tennis. “Three hours of solid debate prep this morning,” he said.
One key wild card Wednesday night is Christie. He is the only contender on stage who has run against Trump before, and has proven lethal on the debate stage previously: In February 2016, he effectively stymied all momentum of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when he mocked Rubio for delivering memorized, pre-planned lines.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a strong fundraiser who many within the GOP see as an increasing factor in the race, has largely stuck to a positive and optimistic message, making Wednesday night a test of whether and how he is willing to mix it up with his rivals.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has emphasized his conservative positions on ideological issues like abortion. But he had also looked for a debate-stage clash with Trump, his former running mate. On Sunday, he criticized the former president on ABC for skipping the first debate.