The First Debate and the Race for Second Place

by Pelican Press
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What’s the point of tonight’s Republican debate?

It’s not an unreasonable question, with the runaway front-runner for the Republican nomination deciding to skip it.

But there’s a case that we might just be getting a clearer view of the race in Donald J. Trump’s absence. We will certainly get a clearer look at an important dimension of the race that we might not have otherwise been able to observe.

Let’s start with a question from a reader, James Tucker of Plano, Texas, who pointed to something we’ve never addressed head-on until now: the possibility that Mr. Trump might not be in the race.

“Mr. Cohn, I enjoy your columns. Do you see any pollsters asking Republicans: “If Trump is not in the race, who would be your choice?” The possibility is real enough.”

It will surely seem real enough tonight, without Mr. Trump on the debate stage.

And it’s a possibility that might gradually take on greater significance in the weeks and months ahead.

The office of the special counsel requested a Jan. 2 trial date in the election subversion case against Mr. Trump in Washington, and it said it would need four to six weeks to present evidence. At least theoretically, that could yield a verdict before the preponderance of Republican delegates are awarded in March.

I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t speculate about whether it’s likely that the special counsel will get his trial date, let alone a conviction, by Super Tuesday on March 5.

But as a political analyst, I can say Mr. Trump wouldn’t ordinarily seem likely to lose the nomination by conventional means in a conventional race: His lead over Ron DeSantis is at least twice as large as that of any front-runner who has ever gone on to lose a party nomination at this stage.

Taken together, it’s entirely possible that the likeliest way for Mr. Trump to lose the nomination involves the mounting weight of his legal challenges, rather than a conventional electoral defeat on the campaign trail and debate stage. That weight could take a variety of forms, including some well short of a conviction, like the possibility that Republican voters gradually reassess the seriousness of the risks facing Mr. Trump as a trial nears — but realistically we’re talking trial, conviction and even imprisonment.

If we stipulate that these risks are in fact the greatest ones facing Mr. Trump, a certain strategy for his opponents begins to take shape: a strategy premised on capitalizing on Mr. Trump’s collapse, should it come. It might involve avoiding conflict with Mr. Trump, rather than trying to bring him down, in hopes of winning the former president’s supporters once he falters. It might involve attacking the other minor candidates, so as to emerge as the likeliest to capitalize on a potential Trump collapse. In time, it’s a strategy that might yield victory. For now, it might not look any different than fighting to take second place — the fight we’ll see on the debate stage.

The debate strategy posted by a firm affiliated with the DeSantis-aligned super PAC Never Back Down contained some of this approach. It argued for partly defending Mr. Trump when Chris Christie attacked him, presumably in hope of maintaining broad appeal to Mr. Trump’s supporters. Instead of attacking Mr. Trump, the memo argued, Mr. DeSantis should “take a sledgehammer” to Vivek Ramaswamy, who may have worked his way up to third place in national polls.

Mr. Ramaswamy might seem to rank far, far behind Mr. Trump on the list of challenges facing Mr. DeSantis, but not if he’s running a second-place strategy. So far this year, Mr. DeSantis has had a very clear lead over his nearest rivals, including in polls without Mr. Trump. But Mr. Ramaswamy is gaining. If Mr. DeSantis fell behind him, the bottom could fall out, his donors could flee, and he would no longer be in position to capitalize on any opening, should there be one.

It’s probably not fair to say that Mr. DeSantis is simply running a “second-place strategy.” For one, his campaign may still have a narrow path to a conventional victory, even if Mr. Trump doesn’t crumble under his own weight, in part because Mr. DeSantis appears relatively stronger in Iowa. For another, Mr. Trump has pledged to stay in the race, even if he goes to jail. A second-place strategy would, eventually, need to turn into a first-place strategy when the time was right.

But either way, Mr. Trump’s decision not to compete in the debate might wind up being a useful one. Out of respect for the candidates, the voters and the democratic process, I’m always reluctant to contemplate the possibility that a candidate might end up “not in the race,” as our questioner put it. But without Mr. Trump on the debate stage, it’s entirely appropriate to consider the campaign without him. That’s the race we have tonight. It may just be the race we have next year.

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