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4 GOP presidential candidates to debate as first primary contests draw nearer

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Four of the remaining Republican presidential candidates will be onstage for tonight's debate in Alabama.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And four is the smallest lineup so far - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Former President Trump will not be there, instead attending a fundraiser near Miami.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez is here with us to talk about the stakes of this fourth Republican debate, and he's actually here with us in the studio. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, so who are you going to be watching most closely?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Michel, I'm going to be watching Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. I expect a lot of people will be, also. I mean, Haley's got some momentum. She's actually caught up to DeSantis in the polls. And that's really led to some greater interest for her on the campaign trail, as well as with donors. You know, she's also picked up some big-money donors in recent weeks. And this debate is another chance for her to make the case that she's the best alternative to Trump, who, of course, is still the front-runner. DeSantis - he, meanwhile, is going to try to defend his second-place position. He's really fighting for attention.

MARTIN: OK, so the debate is in Alabama, but the Iowa caucuses are just six weeks away. So how are they going to sort of handle that or speak to that?

ORDOÑEZ: Right, right. You know, there's going to be a lot of Alabama Republicans in the room, but they don't vote until Super Tuesday, which is in March. Republican strategist Doug Heye told me that's just too late. He says the most important voters are in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

DOUG HEYE: Now, you still have to win over the room because if you don't win over those Alabamans in the debate room, that may fall short of what people see, then, on TV. But if you're Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis especially and you want to have a breakout moment here, that breakout moment is defined by how you translate into the polls into those early caucus and primary states.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, he expects the candidates will be spending a lot of time speaking to issues that are important to voters in those three states. And plus, you know, a Republican primary - there's really not a lot of difference between the policy positions for those remaining candidates, so they need to stand out in other ways. It's going to be more about personalities.

MARTIN: OK. But the biggest personality, Trump, won't be there. I think we keep saying this over and over again. I mean, this is the fourth debate. This is the fourth time he hasn't gone. Has his absence made a difference?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it really hasn't dented his support. You know, he still, of course, is going to be, you know, the elephant who is not in the room. He's going to likely dominate all parts of the conversation - or at least many parts of the conversation. We'll see if the candidates go after him directly, which they haven't so much. And his hold really remains very strong.

MARTIN: But this time he doesn't have some separate event planned to coincide with the debate.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that's probably the biggest change. There's no counterprogramming, per se. You know, he hasn't scheduled any other events to kind of steal attention away. And that's, you know, not insignificant. I mean, that means maybe more Republicans will tune in to the debate. And really, with fewer candidates onstage, that means they might have some more time to talk. They might have some more time to shine.

But, you know, again, this is still very much a race for second place. And, you know, these debates, they're kind of supposed to be these big events in the presidential primaries - you know, these marquee nights. But Trump's absence has kind of sapped some of that energy away, kind of taken away some of the drama that we've come to expect every four years.

MARTIN: All right. That is NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Michel. 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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