GOP presidential hopefuls prepare to debate as the political landscape shifts

MIAMI — A ballooning war in the Middle East. A Republican rebellion in the U.S. House. And growing legal problems for former President Donald Trump.

The third Republican presidential debate takes place Wednesday in Miami against the backdrop of domestic and foreign policy crises that have heightened since the last time GOP contenders met in September.

The Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas terrorists triggered brutal retaliatory strikes by Israel and an invasion of the Gaza Strip. A weekslong standoff in the U.S. House ended when little-known U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson won the speaker’s gavel — and raised concerns about the GOP’s ability to govern.

And as more of Trump’s co-defendants in Fulton County agree to cooperate with prosecutors, his business empire is under threat in an ongoing New York trial.

Trump is again skipping the debate, just as he boycotted previous showdowns in Milwaukee and Los Angeles. With a commanding lead in polls, Trump’s grip on the Republican nomination seems as strong as ever — and he’s holding a rally in nearby Hialeah to compete for airtime with the NBC News event.

Trump’s rivals will have a less crowded debate stage to try to break out roughly 10 weeks before Iowa’s caucuses jump-start the Republican voting calendar.

Gone are former Vice President Mike Pence, who ended his campaign last week, and two long shots who failed to qualify for Wednesday’s event: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Their departure paves the way for the five top-polling Republicans to battle over who can emerge as the main Trump alternative: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, tech executive Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott.

Here’s what to watch:

FOREIGN POLICY. The deadly Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis and triggered retaliatory air, naval and ground attacks in Gaza — leaving more than 9,700 dead, according to the Hamas-run health ministry — now threatens to erupt into a full-scale regional war.

Haley aims to capitalize on the shift toward foreign policy and highlight her steadfast support for Israel at the United Nations, where she made her defense of the Jewish state her defining cause.

She’ll have plenty of company at a debate co-sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition. Even as a deep rift emerges among Democrats over President Joe Biden’s Middle East policy, Republicans have pledged to continue an Israel-centric approach.

SHRINKING FIELD. A smaller stage gives Republican rivals a bigger chance to present themselves as the leading alternative to Trump.

Even as polls show many Americans dread a rematch between Trump and Biden, the former president still retains a commanding lead in state and national polls.

And while DeSantis often polls second, he’s facing competition from multiple fronts. Haley has stepped up her efforts to cut into his support, and both are going all-in on Iowa. Ramaswamy and Scott are still searching for a breakout moment.

Meanwhile, Christie is staking his campaign on hopes that his outspoken criticism of Trump — and an intense focus on New Hampshire’s primary — will pay dividends.

HOME TURF. The race’s shift to Florida heightens the ongoing feud between DeSantis and Trump over a state both call their home.

Just last week, their political tussle reached new heights when six Florida Republican state lawmakers flipped their endorsements from DeSantis to Trump.

Meanwhile, the Florida governor has repositioned much of his local staff to the leadoff state of Iowa, where he just picked up a coveted endorsement from Gov. Kim Reynolds.

ONE YEAR OUT. The November election is one year away, but Wednesday’s debate will be held hours after this year’s vote. And key contests could serve as a barometer for the 2024 election.

In Virginia, Republicans hope to cement control of the divided state’s Legislature. In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear battles for a second term in a race that could provide a blueprint for other Democrats. And in Ohio, abortion rights advocates and opponents are battling over a constitutional amendment.

South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott is under particular pressure as his campaign struggles to gain traction. There were concerns among his allies that he wouldn't meet the higher threshold to participate in Wednesday's debate in Miami. (Nora Williams/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

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Credit: NYT

SCOTT FACTOR. The South Carolina Republican has struggled to gain traction, so much so that there were concerns among his allies that he wouldn’t meet the higher threshold to make the Miami stage. He’ll be under particular pressure to revive his faltering campaign.

HOW TO WATCH. The showdown will be hosted by NBC News and moderated by Lester Holt and Kristen Welker. It will be held at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and air from 8 to 10 p.m. It will also stream for free on NBC News NOW, Peacock and other platforms.

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