Former President Trump’s GOP rivals are signaling more willingness to attack him as the Iowa caucuses approach and the front-runner’s lead shows few signs of shaking.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was among those who let loose on the former president during Wednesday night’s debate — a notable shift from a candidate who had generally been cautious about alienating Trump’s loyal base.
Such attacks open a new phase of the primary as Trump’s rivals grow increasingly desperate with only a few months before early voting begins.
“It’s getting late, and so if your campaign is going to make a move, now’s the time,” said Republican strategist Nicole Schlinger.
Trump, who has maintained a double-digit lead over his rivals in most national and state polls, continues to exert a strong influence over the Republican Party. For that reason, many GOP presidential candidates have been reluctant to bash him, worried about alienating the all-important base.
Wednesday night’s event suggested that might be changing. DeSantis and others were quick to criticize the former president over his absence from the stage. Trump has cited his large lead in the polls as his reason for not attending the debates, and he is expected to skip the third one in early November, as well.
DeSantis, who has most consistently placed in second in polling, arguably took the biggest shift in approach to Trump, more directly addressing Trump after spending much of the campaign dancing around the former president.
“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight,” DeSantis said.
Other candidates also chimed in to hit Trump.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has by far been the most vocal in criticizing the front-runner, spoke directly to Trump through the camera, arguing Trump was skipping the debate because he is afraid of being challenged.
“I know you’re watching, OK? And you’re not here tonight not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record,” Christie said.
GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said the attack on Trump skipping the debates is strong because “there’s really not a good answer.”
“Using a poll as justification for not answering questions may be strategically defensible, but it’s sort of hard to convince voters that you’re above it,” he said.
Mackowiak added that these attacks are about trying to “goad” Trump into appearing at the debate to allow them to “prosecute the case against Trump” in a “direct confrontation.” He said a sustained attack will be needed for the criticism to stick, but it could matter in early-voting states when the Republican National Committee holds future debates in states like Iowa.
Leading candidates have experienced disappointing performances in early states after skipping a debate there. Former President Reagan in 1980 and Trump in 2016 lost the Iowa caucuses after skipping debates in the Hawkeye State, while former President George W. Bush suffered a loss in New Hampshire in 2000 after being late to join the debates.
Schlinger, who is based in Iowa, emphasized that candidates will benefit during this period of the race from being “on the ground” in the early states and sharing their message directly with voters. She said time is running out for candidates to win over these voters, meaning they need to set themselves apart from Trump.
Strategists said Trump is not likely to have much incentive to participate in these debates despite the attacks unless he believes he will face some political consequence, which has not happened yet.
“We are entering the time in which caucus-goers are going to vet these candidates seriously and start making up their mind,” Schlinger said. “And truly, we have less time than the calendar really indicates because you’re going to have a hard stop at Thanksgiving. You’re gonna have a hard stop at Christmas. So there is time, but we are in a critical period now.”
Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates and the director of debate at the University of Michigan, said the candidates learned from seeing the first debate not “move the needle” at all in terms of Trump’s lead.
Candidates like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence received praise for their performances in the first debate, but Trump’s lead remained as prominent as before, though Haley did see some improvement in the polls.
Kall said the candidates began criticizing Trump more, especially for not attending the debate, in the days leading up to the event, demonstrating they are bringing their attacks more to the campaign trail.
“They all came to the conclusion that even if there are individual solid performances in the debate, unless you accompany that with bringing numbers down and declining, you’re not going to make up any solid ground,” he said.
The candidates on stage also went after Trump on a few policy issues.
DeSantis slammed Trump for comments he made earlier this month, when the former president called the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed a “terrible mistake.”
“He’s had a lot to say about that,” the governor said. “He should be here explaining his comments to try to say that pro-life protections are somehow a terrible thing.”
Haley, who has said during her campaign that she will be open about areas in which she agrees and disagrees with Trump, said the former president only focused on trade relations with China and didn’t address other areas, like the flow of fentanyl into the United States and intellectual property theft.
“This is where President Trump went wrong,” she said on the debate stage. “He focused on trade with China. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were buying up our farmland. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were killing Americans. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were stealing $600 billion in intellectual property.”
Some of these policy issues could prove potent for Republicans in early-voting states. Iowa is known for a strong base of evangelical voters who are likely to prioritize restricting abortion, while polling shows three-quarters of Republicans view China as the country’s biggest adversary.
But some strategists said the attacks were still relatively minor and needed to be stepped up significantly to have an effect.
The debate turned raucous in places, but GOP strategist Alex Conant said the candidates on stage seemed more interested in going after each other rather than Trump.
“Every moment during the debate stage talking to 9 million people not about why they’re a better candidate than Trump is a waste of everyone’s time. So I think every question they should be pivoting towards why they are better than Donald Trump,” he said.
“Their biggest complaint seemed to be that he wasn’t on the debate stage, which is not a salient attack since he suffered no penalty for skipping the first event,” Conant added.
New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Mike Dennehy said the debates typically have been “extremely important” in helping and hurting candidates, but the effect has been diluted because of Trump’s absence.
He said the candidates would be able to land more effective attacks on Trump if they unified to have a “concerted critique” targeting him.
“If the candidates had gotten together on this debate and even on the Nov. 8 debate, I believe the more candidates you have being critical of Donald Trump, the better,” Dennehy said.
He said he expects the candidates to pick up their attacks on Trump because they are feeling pressure as time passes. But he argued they will be in trouble if they cannot show some degree of success soon.
“If there’s not another candidate in the 30 percent range by Dec. 1, then they all need to be asking, ‘Is this worth it?’” Dennehy said.