There’s a saying made famous by Dale Earnhardt—“second place is just the first loser”—that applies both to NASCAR drivers and next week’s G.O.P. debate in Milwaukee. The Republican primary field, after all, has been stuck in a sort of stasis. So far, eight candidates have qualified for the first presidential debate, but only seven of them have committed to showing up, and none of them poll anywhere close to one man who refuses to say whether he’ll attend: Donald Trump. Of course, it’s difficult to draw a contrast with the frontrunner if he’s not there, especially when most of his putative rivals are still tripping over one another to defend him after his fourth criminal indictment. It doesn’t help his few critics, including Mike Pence and Chris Christie, that recent surveys show Trump and Biden polling neck-and-neck.
Expectations are for a muted, lower-rated debate by historical standards, though viewership will likely benefit somewhat from it being hosted by Fox. Nevertheless, the stakes are high for the handful of wannabe Trump alternatives who will be hoping to consolidate support if the frontrunner stumbles or, you know, ends up in prison. They’ll also be fighting to generate earned media through calculated-to-go-viral moments with the goal of supercharging their polling and fundraising in order to meet whatever thresholds the R.N.C. sets for the next primary debate. (It remains to be seen whether Christie, Pence or Trump will be barred from debates for declining to abide by the R.N.C. requirement that each candidate publicly pledge to support the eventual nominee.) Sure, Trump doesn’t need to attend, but for the rest of these candidates, media oxygen is a basic requirement for a minimally viable campaign, and they won’t last long without it.
The dynamic of this year’s Republican primary, however, can’t be compared to 2012, or even 2016, when a series of candidate boomlets allowed for the impression, at least, that it could be anyone’s race. This time around, there’s really only enough crawlspace for a single Trump rival, if he or she can consolidate voter support, to have a shot at winning New Hampshire or Iowa. “You can’t just survive this debate,” one party insider noted, comparing the debates to a roller-derby match wherein the only way to climb the leaderboard is to knock rivals out. “They all have to win. Surviving this debate is not a win for anybody.”