RNC announces candidates for another Trump-less debate

The stage is set for the second GOP presidential primary debate — and once again, the frontrunner is nowhere to be seen.

On Monday night, the Republican National Committee confirmed that seven candidates have been invited to Wednesday’s debate: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessperson Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

This stage represents a small winnowing from the first debate last month. All seven candidates participated in August, but one candidate who was on stage then didn’t make the cut this week: former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who did not have the polling needed to qualify for the debate.

Notably missing from that group is former President Donald Trump, who will instead be in Michigan on Wednesday for a rally. He’s scheduled to deliver a speech at 8 p.m. Eastern Time — one hour before the debate — in Clinton Township, a northern Detroit suburb in Macomb County, an important swing area in the general election.

Trump skipped the first debate last month as well, that time counterprogramming the showdown with a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson. Trump was not on the invite list, even though he met the polling and donor requirement, presumably because he did not submit a handful of pledges to the party committee that he long said he wouldn’t sign.

This week’s debate is sponsored by Fox Business, the Reagan Foundation, Univision and the conservative streaming site Rumble. It will be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and begin at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Trump’s absence has long been expected.

Before the first debate, he openly talked about how he had no interest in attending, not wanting to give lower-polling rivals an opening to chip away at his lead. When he made the decision to skip the first debate, those around the former president made clear that he wasn’t likely to make the trip to California, either.

And his participation in future debates remains an open question. Trump told Megyn Kelly in a recent interview that while he is open to debating President Joe Biden in the general election, it’s unlikely he will appear on stage with his GOP rivals in the primary when he is so far ahead in the polls. “I don’t see it,” Trump said. “Why would I do it?”

Skipping the first debate didn’t appear to hurt Trump. While some candidates below him have risen and fallen in polls, nobody has bitten into his yawning lead. In fact, his standing in national polls has actually slightly ticked up since the first debate in FiveThirtyEight’s averages.

The debate stage on Wednesday will be mostly similar to the August showdown. But the third debate, which will be in Miami in November, could further winnow the field after the RNC nudged up the participation requirements again. Just four candidates have met the qualification so far, according to POLITICO’s analysis — Trump, DeSantis, Ramaswamy and Haley — although others still have over a month to make it on stage.

Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.

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