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What to watch for in the second Republican presidential debate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Seven candidates take the stage for the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday, tomorrow. Yet again, the GOP frontrunner won't be there. Instead, former President Donald Trump is holding his own counterprogramming in Michigan. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is here. Danielle, Trump won't be at this debate, and he's ahead by a long shot, so what's the point? Is the debate still meaningful?

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Excellent question, and, you know, I wondered that myself. So I reached out to several Republican strategists to see what they thought, and here's what Alice Stewart had to say. She's a veteran of multiple GOP presidential campaigns. She told me that she's been talking to a lot of Republicans, including the current presidential campaigns, and here's what she's heard.

ALICE STEWART: A lot of the candidates are afraid to go after Donald Trump because they don't want to alienate the base, but they can't do that anymore. It's not working.

KURTZLEBEN: So, yes, the candidates have these two big imperatives to differentiate themselves from each other. But really, what she's saying is it's high time that they try to differentiate themselves from Trump much more than they did at that last debate. At that last debate, we saw a little of this. We saw former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley taking Trump to task for heavy spending during his presidency. So you can bet that candidates will be trying to differentiate themselves from him even more this time. But the question is how much because, you'll remember, we saw that really revealing, really awkward moment in the first debate when the moderator asked the candidates, would you support Trump as the nominee if he's convicted of a crime? And there was waiting. There was looking around. They took some time to answer. And so the question is, will they have firmer stances this time? How scared are they of alienating Trump's voters?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So that's one thing you're going to be looking for. What else do you have your eye on?

KURTZLEBEN: To get away from Trump a little bit, I'm going to be watching for abortion because abortion is a very important topic to Republicans, especially evangelical Christian voters. But it is also a topic that Republicans have been struggling to talk about in recent months. To get back to Trump here, he has had his own issues. He's been kind of squishy on this. He won't say what he wants the law to be. Rather, he has been saying he wants to have people for and against abortion rights come together and reach a compromise. Now, other candidates will definitely attack him as too moderate. People like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have been doing that already. Now, to be clear, Trump is not a moderate. He celebrates the overturn of Roe as often as he can. But this is definitely one place that other candidates see a weakness.

Beyond that, I'm very curious how candidates see other really important topics in the news right now, like the shutdown. What do they think about the government shutdown that is being caused by hardline Republicans in the House? Beyond that, how do they respond to the strike in Michigan, which is, of course, where Trump is going tomorrow night? There are so many interesting questions that could be asked. I really hope they get to the substance of those things.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned Trump is going to Michigan. He's doing his own event, acting like he's the nominee, attacking Biden, not his opponents.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

SHAPIRO: And he's really far ahead in the polls. Can any of these candidates really beat him?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, there's two ways to look at this. One is that he has an insurmountable lead, is that this is 2016 all over again, where you have Trump and you have all the other candidates trying to be the Trump alternative and failing. That is very possible, of course, given the lead that he has, which is huge. But the other option is that he has weaknesses that can be exploited. As Stewart told me, some social conservatives really are very angry at Trump about not taking a stronger stance on abortion. Honestly, to me, the most interesting thing that these debates - or one of the most interesting things that these debates show us is just how much Trump has changed the party. There are just so few old-fashioned, establishment-type Republicans running what we would call conservative campaigns now.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: And instead, this party has taken this populist turn.

SHAPIRO: All right.

KURTZLEBEN: It's going to be really fascinating to watch.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. 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.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.