All the candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night will hope for a breakout moment, but the brightest spotlight will likely shine on Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).
As the highest-polling candidate who is attending, DeSantis will be positioned in the middle of the stage and is sure to get some shade thrown his way over the course of the night.
“Every candidate on and off the debate stage will have their knives out for Ron DeSantis because they know this is a two-man race,” campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said. “If DeSantis wasn’t the best candidate to beat Joe Biden, Donald Trump wouldn’t have spent over $20 million attacking him.”
While some politicos such as former Obama adviser David Axelrod say DeSantis has the most to lose from the debate, his camp is emphasizing the positives ahead of the Milwaukee showdown. For example, a Des Moines Register poll found that 61% of respondents listed DeSantis as either their first or second choice or are actively considering him, just 2 points behind the front-runner, former President Donald Trump.
In this view, it’s the other candidates, all of whom are polling at less than 10% nationally, who need a breakout moment at the debate, not the Florida governor.
Yet the wider trend for DeSantis has been overwhelmingly negative since he became a candidate in May. His national polling peaked at just over 30% in the spring, and he sits at less than 15% today.
In the space between those numbers, some Republican strategists see an opening.
“I think DeSantis is by far the most popular Republican amongst the most conservative activists in Iowa,” said GOP strategist John Feehery. “And I don’t think that the polling adequately shows how popular he is with that crowd.”
Feehery argues that a good debate for the Florida governor would showcase that he’s the “least woke candidate,” the best on COVID-19 policy in contrast to Trump- and Pence-approved lockdowns, and the candidate most willing to fight for conservative grassroots causes.
The fact that DeSantis is coming in under the strongest spotlight means some of the lesser-known candidates will be looking for a breakout moment, argues Hofstra University professor of rhetoric and public advocacy Tomeka Robinson.
“It will introduce them to the wider public,” she said, naming former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley as a potential breakout star of the evening.
Robinson also criticized a memo posted on the website of DeSantis’s super PAC advising him to hammer Vivek Ramaswamy and defend Trump, saying she’d advise him to do just the opposite.
“DeSantis should establish what is different about himself,” she said. “All of the non-Trump candidates are lagging far behind, so they need to show why voters should take a look at them.”
That take is similar to the view of conservative commentator and activist Erick Erickson, who hosted a Trump-free event in Georgia last week.
One of the biggest storylines of the debate is the fact that Trump is skipping, though the move is far from unprecedented as both Bob Dole and George W. Bush skipped some primary debates during their presidential runs. Bush was later drawn onstage by a John McCain surge, and it remains to be seen if Trump will join in later.
The debate’s location is also noteworthy as Wisconsin will be one of the most hotly contested states next year. It was one of the “blue wall” states that Trump won in 2016, only to return to the Democratic camp four years later. Both political parties want to win Wisconsin badly, and the Democratic National Committee will host a press conference in Milwaukee on Wednesday afternoon.
Julia Azari, a political science professor at Milwaukee-based Marquette University, notes that the state has trended red in recent years but has a rocky relationship with Trump.
Azari also said that polling indicates “kitchen table” issues like the economy are connecting better with voters than cultural issues like abortion and the teaching of critical race theory.
“DeSantis’s trajectory has illustrated some of that,” she said. “I’ll be looking for the candidates to make a case for themselves. Is it about ideology, electability, background and skills, their appeal with small donors? Those are the questions I’ll be looking at.”