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A preview of the first GOP debate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tomorrow night's Republican presidential primary debate is a chance for lesser-known candidates to stand out for multiple reasons - maybe most of all because the leading candidate for the nomination won't be there. Of course, that's former President Donald Trump. The other candidates have been struggling to break through. To tell us what those presidential hopefuls might try to do in Trump's absence, we're joined by NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Starting with Trump, why is he not attending?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, he certainly met the qualifying standards for the debate when it came to polling and fundraising. But he refused to do one big thing, and that's sign a pledge vowing to support whomever the Republican nominee became, whether or not it's him. You know, it really proves once again that for Trump, he really feels this is a party of one. You know, there's a bit of irony in all of this, too, because the pledge was created in the first place to benefit him - so other candidates would have to say they'd support Trump if he won, given that a vocal minority of voices in the GOP had been saying that they don't want Trump to be the nominee again. The party wanted to show unity. And yet here's Trump turning it on its head.

SHAPIRO: Is there a political risk for Trump in skipping this debate? Do Republican voters want to see him on that stage?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, this kind of move is usually pretty typical for an incumbent senator or congressperson, you know, who's way ahead in the polls, because why take the risk, they think, but not usually a presidential candidate. Of course, Trump, as we know, doesn't really care about all that. And he has such a deep reservoir of support among the GOP base that he probably won't suffer politically for this. You know, him skipping this debate is also not all that surprising. He did this in 2016, too, you might remember, after he didn't like a line of questioning from then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly. Trump said she had blood coming out of her wherever. Then he didn't want to show a debate - you know, didn't want to show up to a debate that she was set to host. It created a ton of chaos and drama, but that's all been part of the Trump playbook of getting more attention for himself.

SHAPIRO: And here we are talking about him.

MONTANARO: Yep.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about the others who will actually be on that stage. Tell us about them.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Eight candidates qualified for the debate stage, some better known than others. You have two former Trump administration officials, former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, who was Trump's U.N. ambassador and a former governor of South Carolina. There's one U.S. senator in another South Carolinian, Tim Scott. There are two current governors, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was supposed to be the principal alternative to Trump but whose campaign really has been sputtering of late, as well as the lesser-known Doug Burgum, the billionaire governor from North Dakota.

There are former governors in Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. They've both been very vocal Trump critics. And then there's former tech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy, who's gotten a lot of attention of late, in part because of some flashy political stunts like rapping to Eminem and for some controversial comments he's made about things like the war in Ukraine, dismissing it as just a war between thugs in Eastern Europe.

SHAPIRO: Substance-wise, how are these candidates likely to distinguish themselves? Where might there be some divides?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I'm really watching Ukraine as one of those potential divides. You know, people like Pence, Haley and Scott, on the one hand, are in the traditional GOP, you know, pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia camp. But DeSantis and Ramaswamy are really echoing Trump's position and walking a line and saying it's not a war that's vital to U.S. interests. You know, that could have major consequences for the world, obviously, depending on who wins this nomination.

Another area I'm watching is the economy. You know, the candidates criticized Biden's handling of the economy and inflation, but do they give us any serious solutions beyond, you know, firing someone like Jerome Powell, who's the current Federal Reserve chairman and someone who most people probably don't even know, or floating more tax cuts? You know, it really reminds me of the debates in 2012 and 2016 when Republicans were against, quote-unquote, Obamacare and then really had no tangible solutions to replace it. I'm also going to be listening, of course, for whether any of these candidates are critical of Trump, how that lands with the audience...

SHAPIRO: All right.

MONTANARO: ...And if anyone can stand out from Trump's shadow.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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