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What to expect in the third Republican primary debate tomorrow

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida is the place to be in Republican politics tomorrow night as their presidential candidates gather for their third primary debate. But the biggest name in GOP politics won't be there again - Donald Trump. Instead, once again, the former president is holding a competing rally just miles away from the site of the debate. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us now for a preview of the drama. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so Trump is missing yet another debate. Tell us about these rally plans.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, he's skipping again. He's rallying in nearby Hialeah, Fla., which is a heavily Latino area. He's still refusing to sign a pledge to back whomever the GOP nominee is selected to be, which was one of the requirements by the Republican National Committee to be able to appear on the debate stage. But Trump and his team really feel emboldened by this strategy. They see no downside to it. He continues to have huge leads in the polls despite - or maybe because of - these trials and scores of charges that he's facing.

Plus, people in Trump world see this series of New York Times/Siena battleground polls that were released over the weekend showing Trump leading President Biden in multiple swing states as a huge boost to them. You know, Republicans running against Trump have been trying to argue, with lots of merit, that Trump is unelectable, given how toxic his brand has become with independents and how poorly Trump-backed candidates have fared in recent elections. But those polls really have undercut that idea. You know, of course, a general election's a year away...

CHANG: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...And there hasn't even been any real campaigning yet between him and Biden.

CHANG: I know. Well, let's talk about the debate stage. I mean, there are some changes to the lineup of people who we're going to be seeing up there, right?

MONTANARO: Only five candidates made the debate this time. Really, the stage has been kind of winnowed down. You have Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; Vivek Ramaswamy, the former tech CEO; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott; and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

CHANG: OK. Those are the people on the stage. What are the issues going to be tomorrow night?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, it's interesting. One of the debates co-sponsors is the Republican Jewish Coalition. And there hasn't been a debate since the Israel-Hamas war, and I'd expect that to be at least a big part of the focus, which really will allow the candidates to tee off on President Biden's response. You know, Biden's gotten low approval ratings for his handling, despite and also because of his initial strong support for Israel. It's really splintered key portions of the Democratic base, and Republicans would love to highlight their staunchly, for the most part, pro-Israel stances.

CHANG: Any particular candidate you think that benefits?

MONTANARO: Well, I'll look directly at Nikki Haley. You know, this is in her wheelhouse as the former Trump ambassador to the United Nations. Certainly, it's a less comfortable topic for DeSantis, who's really struggled in talking about foreign policy and trying to walk this line between the sort of Trump-style populism and the traditional GOP hawkishness that really says that U.S. intervention in the world is necessary.

You know, this is going to be a debate that's a real test for DeSantis. Another good performance from Haley and a flat one from DeSantis and - you know, and Haley could really start to secure her place as the principal Trump alternative. At least, that's what she hopes.

And there are still formidable opponents on this stage. You know, Christie is a strong debater. Ramaswamy, we've seen, can command the stage, even if it's just by talking a lot. Tim Scott's campaign put out a memo this week outlining his strategy needing to carve out a lane between DeSantis and Haley. He plans to tie it back to Trump, with this memo, asking how can either candidate - DeSantis or Haley - present a contrast with Donald Trump when he made each of their political careers? We'll see if that sticks.

CHANG: That is NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Yeah. You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUOMO'S "STRING ANTHEM") 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.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.