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A look ahead at tomorrow's Republican presidential primary debate


Four candidates for debate No. 4 - the next Republican primary debate is coming up tomorrow night, and NPR political correspondent Sarah McCammon joins us now for a preview. Hey, Sarah.


CHANG: All right, so which candidates are we down to for this debate?

MCCAMMON: Well, this will be the smallest debate yet, as you might expect at this stage of the primary. The four who have met the Republican National Committee's debate criteria are former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. The debate is set for tomorrow evening in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and, once again, Ailsa, the front-runner, former President Trump, will not be there.

CHANG: That's right. OK, so what would you say is at stake specifically this time around?

MCCAMMON: Well, because the field keeps getting smaller, that is shifting the dynamics a little bit. So first of all, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum dropped out of the race this week after missing the last debate and failing to qualify for this one. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who was in the debate last month - the previous debate - he also dropped out recently. So that means more airtime for everyone to try to distinguish themselves, which they've all been trying to do for months now.

And of course, we're just over a month from the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest, so time's getting short. I talked to Republican pollster Jon McHenry with North Star Opinion Research, and he thinks this is a make-or-break moment particularly for Ron DeSantis.

JON MCHENRY: If he doesn't do well in this debate, I think people look at that and go, well, that campaign's over. And I think the people who follow it pretty closely might be leaning that way now, but a good debate can rescue a lot of that.

MCCAMMON: Now, as you know, Ailsa, DeSantis had been seen as the most likely candidate to take on...

CHANG: Right.

MCCAMMON: ...Trump at one point. But McHenry points to recent shakeups in his super PAC and the fact that Nikki Haley seems to have stepped into that role, based at least on polling and support from major donors like the Koch network.

CHANG: Well, what issues do you expect, Sarah, that the Republican candidates will be focusing on tomorrow night?

MCCAMMON: Certainly foreign policy - you know, with the resumption of fighting between Israel and Hamas, that's on everyone's minds. At the same time, President Biden is telling Congress he needs more funding for Ukraine and soon. Republicans are in lockstep on support for Israel, but Ukraine is more divisive, so we may hear more about that tension. And abortion continues to be a challenging issue for Republicans in this post-Roe v. Wade environment. You know, the candidates have been weighing whether they'd support a hypothetical national abortion ban and just how restrictive they want to be. They differ on some of those issues. And Christie and Haley recently sparred on this at an event hosted by an evangelical activist in Iowa. Haley said recently she would have signed a six-week abortion ban as South Carolina governor. Christie went after her on that. Here he is talking with New Hampshire news station WMUR.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: Here in New Hampshire, she's talking about not wanting to divide the country, wanting everybody to make their own decision. And then she goes to Iowa. And because she's sitting across from Bob Vander Plaats in a conservative forum, she said she'd sign a six-week abortion ban. So I want to be clear to the people of New Hampshire - I would not sign a six-week abortion ban.

MCCAMMON: Now, to be fair, Haley has noted that Republicans are a long way from having the votes in Congress to pass a national ban, but she welcomes state-level restrictions.

Finally, there are Trump's ongoing legal battles. Those may be an opportunity to remind Republican voters of his vulnerability, but a lot of the candidates have hesitated to criticize him too much.

CHANG: Well, you know, as we're talking, we just want to remind everybody Trump has skipped all of the primary debates so far. So where will he be during this fourth debate tomorrow?

MCCAMMON: You know, in the past, he's always done some kind of counterprogramming, Ailsa, but this time he will be at a private fundraiser - probably another sign of just how confident he seems to feel in this primary.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you so much, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") 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.

Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.