Donald Trump once again is skipping the second Republican presidential debate, but his presence was apparent at the venue, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA.
Along Madera Drive, about a dozen of his supporters waved large campaign flags and banners — including signs that read “Save California, Save America,” while another posted an apparently outdated “Recall Newsom” sign.
That said, the debate, to air Thursday on Fox Business and Univision, was being billed as a way for a Trump alternative to break through, and for some a make-or-break moment as donors get antsy as their campaigns languish in the low single digits.
Seven candidates qualified: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who qualified for the last debate, did not this time.
Even though Fox Business built up the event in the hours before, with some pundits suggesting that voters are open to a Trump alternative, one of its star anchors, Larry Kudlow, predicted “that Donald Trump will once again be the winner,” as his former boss maintains a wide lead in national and early state polls. The former president has said that he does not plan to attend any of the debates, and was due in Detroit for some counterprogramming: a speech to union members.
Another bit of counterprogramming will come from Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, who planned to feature Bill O’Reilly as his guest on his X/Twitter show starting a half hour before the debate is to begin. It was Carlson who took O’Reilly’s time slot after he was fired in 2017.
“How did you keep yourself from being bitter?” Carlson, who himself was dropped from Fox News’ lineup in April, asked in a preview clip.
“I’m just bitter about everything anyway,” O’Reilly said. “How much bitter can you get.”
The candidates will appear tonight in the large pavilion at the Reagan Library underneath the museum’s featured attraction: Air Force One. Much of the media was about a block away on the library grounds, in a large tent where big screens were set up playing the Fox Business feed. Fox News host Dana Perino is moderating with Stuart Varney and Univision’s Ilia Calderón. Although Fox Business is focused on financial news, the network has filled its lineup with a number of commentators including Kudlow, who formerly worked in the Trump administration, and Dagen McDowell, co-host of The Bottom Line with Sean Duffy. They signaled the debate’s focus in the hours before it was to start, including favorite rightward issues like inflation, crime and parental rights.
McDowell’s disdain for current president Joe Biden was on display as she introduced Kudlow, “Larry, let’s talk Bidenomics — wretch.”
Democrats were to be represented at the debate by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was expected to be in the spin room to offer the Biden campaign point of view. Among the other attendees spotted: former California Gov. Pete Wilson, actor Trevor Donovan and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway.