Republican presidential hopefuls — minus frontrunner Donald Trump — take the debate stage Wednesday facing scrutiny over their party’s abortion positions, after disappointing state election results highlighted voter aversion to restrictions on reproductive rights.
The ex-president, leading in every major Republican nomination poll, will snub the Miami event and instead hold a rally 11 miles (18 kilometers) away, maintaining his strategy of refusing to debate challengers.
The five remaining candidates in a thinning field have little prospect for meaningful breakthroughs against the populist leader of the hard-right Make America Great Again movement — even though Trump faces multiple criminal indictments and will spend much of the next year ahead of the 2024 election in courtrooms.
The main hopefuls to watch remain Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Trump’s former UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
After an initially brisk start to his campaign, DeSantis is struggling to become the new face of the Republican Party — casting himself as an equally hard-right but more youthful, and scandal-free, version of the 77-year-old Trump.
He lags behind Trump by nearly 45 percentage points, according to polling aggregator RealClearPolitics.
Haley, who has benefited from DeSantis’s decline and promotes a more centrist view on abortion, has a solid third place behind Trump and the Florida governor and is seeking to build on her momentum.
Also on stage will be entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, US Senator Tim Scott and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
Christie stands out as the only pretender to the Republican crown willing to mount harsh attacks on Trump, as he did following Tuesday’s elections, which saw a Trump acolyte lose to the incumbent Democratic governor in conservative-leaning Kentucky.
“Donald Trump is political and electoral poison down ballot,” Christie told CNN.
The Trump crowd however was unswayed, as a line of supporters snaked outside the venue in Hialeah, Florida where he was to command the stage solo shortly before the 8:00 pm (0100 GMT Thursday) debate.
“I don’t feel that he has to debate,” Yumari Sotolongo, a 68-year-old retired woman, told AFP. “He is fully ahead in the polls and he is going to be our next president.”
– Abortion issue key –
Abortion could be a key debate topic after Tuesday’s elections where voters demonstrated the unpopularity of harsh Republican restrictions.
The results also raised an all-important question about whether Republican turnout drops when Trump himself is not on the ballot.
In Republican-led Ohio, voters passed a constitutional referendum enshrining the right to an abortion.
Reproductive rights were also in the spotlight in Kentucky, with the southern state re-electing incumbent Democratic Governor Andy Beshear after he campaigned on protecting abortion rights from the Republican legislature.
In Virginia, Democrats won control of the state assembly, dashing a much-hyped campaign led by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin to use a victory in the legislative races to enact a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The defeat for Youngkin and his party also ended speculation the governor might use a dramatic election victory Tuesday to power his own late entry into the 2024 presidential race as a more moderate alternative to Trump.
The Republican primaries kick off January 15 in the Midwestern state of Iowa, where DeSantis recently won the governor’s prized endorsement, sparking vocal outrage from Trump.
The eventual nominee will face off against President Joe Biden in next November’s presidential election.
The previous two Republican debates have been noisy, but not exactly eventful affairs — particularly since they lacked the star power of Trump.
With fewer candidates onstage this time, Ramaswamy, polling in fourth place, told AFP he was “hopeful the debate will be more productive.”
Originally published as US abortion policies loom over Republican debate in Miami