Five things to watch out for at the Republican primary debate

Eight candidates are expected to attend
Eight candidates are expected to attend

Seven Republican contenders are set to come face to face on Wednesday night for the second GOP debate.

Dominant Donald Trump will be absent as he again works to upstage his rivals with a coinciding engagement in California.

The debate attendees will struggle to make ground on Mr Trump as they vie over issues like Ukraine and a possible government shutdown.

Here are five things to watch out for.

Ramaswarmy’s second act

Vivek Ramaswamy had a breakout moment in the first debate in Milwaukee last month.

As he went toe-to-toe with the other candidates he put forward a Trump-like persona, seizing the spotlight with a series of fiery speeches.

The businessman and first-time candidate has performed better in the primary campaign than many more established Republicans, but his rising profile has also invited scrutiny over his sometimes inconsistent statements.

He accused rival candidate Chris Christie of not telling the truth when Mr Christie pointed out that he said “much different things” about Donald Trump in his book compared to the admiration he showed for the former president during the debate.

Keep an eye out for the possibility of Mr Ramaswamy becoming a target from his opponents.

Can DeSantis pull it back?

For months, Ron DeSantis was seen as Mr Trump’s main competition, but in the first debate he largely languished on the sidelines.

Mr DeSantis failed to excite anyone, lacking personality and energy.

The outlook is bleak for the Florida governor: some of his biggest longtime donors have grown impatient and reluctant to pour funds into a campaign that seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

Mr DeSantis will need to seize back momentum tonight and do more than simply working to avoid a misstep.

Some quick paced debate with Mr Ramaswamy, who is competing for the support of hard-right voters, could do the trick.

From left, former Vice President Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, Vivek Ramaswamy, chairman and co-founder of Strive Asset Management and Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations
From left, former Vice President Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, Vivek Ramaswamy, chairman and co-founder of Strive Asset Management and Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations - Bloomberg/Al Drago

The Ukraine question

One of the key questions of the election is what is next for the US’ support for Ukraine.

Should the government continue its military aid to the soldiers battling Russia’s invading army, or is it time for the funds to be redirected domestically?

Republicans in Congress and the presidential campaign trail have been divided on the issue.

Tonight, look out for tepid support from Mr Ramaswamy and Mr DeSantis, who could potentially appeal to isolationist voters by backing Mr Trump’s America first approach.

On the other hand, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley may tow a more supportive line for Ukraine, which has become a mark of traditional foreign policy conservatism.

Government shutdown

The federal government appears to be powering towards a shutdown this Sunday, with Congress stonewalled into inaction by a fractured Republican majority in the House.

It is unable to pass the spending bills vital for keeping federal agencies operational from Sept 30.

Complicating the situation is Mr Trump, who has demanded that his supporters vote against any spending measure that could work in favour of the Justice Department as it seeks to prosecute him over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and conceal classified documents taken from the White House.

The candidates will almost certainly be pushed to take a firm position on the issue.

Mr DeSantis, Tim Scott and former vice-president Mike Pence appear to be backing the prospect of shutdown.

The candidate’s answers could be a useful alternative to Mr Trump’s instructions, or push more Republicans to a risky political move.

Watch out for Haley

Ms Haley has, like her opponents, struggled to make gains on Mr Trump.

But she could have the edge others are lacking: electability.

The electability question is key to Republican voters who are reluctant to put Mr Trump back in the White House and fearful of Mr DeSantis’ culture war.

Although Mr Ramaswamy emerged from the first debate as the brash headline grabber, Ms Haley arguably had her chance to shine.

She positioned herself as the “adult in the room” as the other contenders bickered and distinguished herself with her answers on abortion and foreign policy.

Now, Ms Haley has the potential to ride the wave and potentially appeal to independents and some disaffected Democrats.

Ms Haley sits in second place to Mr Trump in her home state of South Carolina. In Iowa, she has moved from single digits to a consistent third place, while a the most recent New Hampshire poll showed her in second.

In early September though a CNN poll projected her as the strongest opponent to Joe Biden.

Given her rise and interest from donors looking for a plausible alternative to Mr Trump, she will likely be more of a target in this debate than the first.