Even without Donald Trump attending the debate, the focus will largely remain on the former President. And, while this debate represents the official launch of the Republican primary (with 440 days until the presidential election), it is unlikely to shift the direction of the current primary landscape. It may not be the debate voters were hoping for, but this is what to expect:
A Stage for Introductions: The debate will feature 8 candidates - most of whom (especially those without strong name recognition) will use the opportunity to introduce themselves. Many are not household names, even among Republicans, so this may be their biggest opportunity on the national stage and they are likely to take advantage of it.
Few Fireworks Expected: Since many of the candidates on stage will effectively be having a one way debate against a candidate who is not even in the room, do not expect the many viral moments (or ratings) that the Republican debates have had in recent presidential elections.
Without Trump, DeSantis Becomes the Punching Bag: The leading candidate always remains the focus of attacks and pointed questions during any debate, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (currently in 2nd place in the polls) may get some of the focus that would have otherwise gone to Trump had he been in the room. Generally, debates are all about managing risk and among those in the room, DeSantis has the most risk as attention shifts to him.
Opportunity for Differentiation: While some candidates have built a strategy that includes alignment with Donald Trump on many issues (potentially to position themselves better as a VP candidate), this is the moment for candidates to show how different, better, or more likely to win they are than the former President. Clearly a handful of candidates (who have aggressively focused on Trump on the campaign trail) will spend all their time differentiating themselves from those leading in the polls, but others will awkwardly dance around questions about Donald Trump’s absence from the debate, his legal issues, and his record.
Pay Attention to the “Long Shots”: The candidates at the bottom of the polls have nothing to lose and have the most to gain from the debate. If there are any viral video moments, it would likely come from one of these candidates given their ability to take risks without much downside. This will be a brand strengthening event for them and on a crowded debate stage, they will need to make a name for themselves.
Without the frontrunner, this will be a bit of an odd debate that will be seemingly disjointed at times with many different candidate objectives that will be tough to manage for any moderator. While candidates will use the opportunity without Donald Trump to get some more time to make their case, it will be difficult to get away from the likely focus around the former President. For those playing any kind of debate bingo, put your money on the word “Trump.”