And the other contenders are in an even more vulnerable situation, with many of them hovering in the single digits in national polls. They each recognize the Fox Business debate is one of only a handful of moments in the spotlight they can leverage before voting starts.
“They’re looking for a breakout moment. They’ll be vigorous and dynamic,” said Stuart Varney, who joins Dana Perino and Ilia Calderon as moderators of the debate. “It might not be make-or-break, but it will enhance their position.”
Aside from DeSantis, the other qualifying candidates who plan to participate are: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.).
The debate will be televised live at 9 p.m. on the Fox Business Network and Univision. It will also stream on Rumble, the conservative-leaning video-sharing platform.
Here’s a closer look at what else to watch:
When Trump decided to boycott the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared him the “loser” of the debate and the former president’s top rivals tried their best to soak up the attention.
But since then, key polls indicate some of the other contenders have slipped further behind Trump — polling averages reported by RealClearPolitics show DeSantis more than 40 points behind at almost 15%, while Haley and Ramaswamy battle for third with each falling somewhere between 5% and 6%.
Trump, who is already looking ahead to a rematch against President Joe Biden, has maintained his advantage in the GOP race despite four indictments leveled against him this year, including unprecedented charges in Fulton County that accuse Trump and 18 co-defendants of a sweeping “criminal enterprise” to overturn his 2020 defeat in Georgia.
The Wednesday debate will test again whether any of Trump’s rivals can accomplish what they’ve so far failed to pull off: show they would be the best alternative to the former president.
But don’t expect the moderators to overly focus on the former president, who plans to woo striking autoworkers in Michigan on Wednesday instead of participating in the debate.
“We’ll keep a broad-ranging debate. But I expect the candidates to bring Trump up,” Varney said. “They all want to run against him, and they want to shine as the non-Trump candidate. So I think they will raise the issue.”
With the federal government on the brink of a shutdown, the U.S. House is riven by a deep divide between GOP leaders and their top allies and hard-line conservatives who want to slash U.S. military aid to Ukraine and make other deep cuts to federal spending.
The brinksmanship has trained a brighter spotlight on the fissures within the GOP, as DeSantis targets both House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Trump for adding “trillions of dollars to the debt even when we had a unified Republican government.”
Other rivals have taken a different tack.
Haley told lawmakers it would be “irresponsible and inexcusable” to shut down the government, while Scott advocates for steeper spending cuts and stricter requirements for social safety-net benefits.
Republicans have an infinitesimally small chance of winning California, where Democrats have carried every statewide election since 2006. In the nation’s most populous state, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a roughly 2-to-1 margin.
But California represents more than its trove of electoral votes to the candidates. It offers an abundance of fundraising opportunities for whichever candidate can make inroads here.
And, importantly, a new rule change by the state GOP could upend the political map on March 5, the Super Tuesday contest when voters in more than a dozen states cast their ballots.
Under the new rules, a GOP candidate can win the state’s entire slate of 169 delegates if he or she captures a majority of the vote. If not, the delegates will be awarded proportionately.
If Trump sweeps California’s delegates in March, some analysts say the race could effectively be over. The showdown gives his rivals a chance to make their cases to California voters — and try to keep him under that 50% threshold.