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5 candidates qualify for GOP debate. Donald Trump chooses not to participate

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

2024 Republican presidential hopefuls will face off in a third debate tonight in Miami.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now, it'll be the smallest slate of candidates to take the stage yet. The Republican National Committee says only a handful of candidates qualified.

MARTIN: Here to tell us more about what to expect from tonight's debate is NPR's Ashley Lopez in Miami. Good morning, Ashley.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: First, let's talk about who did qualify to participate in tonight's debate. Who are we going to see?

LOPEZ: Sure. So only five candidates have qualified this time around thanks to stricter qualifying rules from the Republican National Committee. So former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will be onstage tonight. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who was in the first two debates, did not qualify this time around. And former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who appeared in the first debate, hasn't qualified for these last two. And, of course, we won't be seeing former Vice President Mike Pence onstage tonight because he recently dropped out of the 2024 presidential race.

MARTIN: And the front-runner, former President Donald Trump - I hear he's got a place nearby, so getting there shouldn't be a problem. But I take it he's not going to make it.

LOPEZ: No. No, he's not. Donald Trump has not qualified for any of the Republican debates so far. Even though, yeah, he is polling in the lead and has huge fundraising numbers, he has not met all the qualifying standards, specifically one that requires each candidate to pledge that they will support whoever wins the nomination. Trump has flat-out refused to sign that pledge. He has also said that he doesn't want to elevate his opponents by being onstage with them.

But just like the last few debates, he's planning some sort of counterprogramming, if you will. He's holding a rally relatively close by in Hialeah. Hialeah is a predominantly Cuban American part of town, which is a subset of voters Trump has done really well with. In 2020, Trump outperformed expectations specifically among Latino voters in South Florida. So this is an important base of supporters that he is expected to bring out tonight. And as you mentioned, it's close by for him.

MARTIN: So of the people who are on the stage - who are going to be on the stage...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Nikki Haley - former South Carolina governor, former U.N. ambassador, actually, you know, appointed by Trump - she's been getting a lot of buzz in the media. First of all, why is that? And how big of a deal is this debate for her?

LOPEZ: Well, Haley's definitely the candidate to watch tonight, right? She has been steadily gaining support in the polls. Importantly, she's been doing really well in matchups with President Biden in swing states. And, you know, what's done it is a lot of her momentum started with strong debate performance. Often, you will see in crowded primaries that candidates will get a lot of momentum with something like a good debate performance and then just sort of flame out. But Haley has been an anomaly in that she's been consistently gaining ground in this race.

Right now, I think she is perhaps the lead alternative to Trump among the slate of candidates that are left. And there were high expectations that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis would probably fill that role, but his campaign has had a lot of pitfalls, and he's had some pretty lackluster performances in the last few debates. For that reason, I actually fully expect that Haley will set her sights on Ron DeSantis. In fact, her campaign has already released an ad taking aim at him.

MARTIN: So what do we expect the candidates to talk about tonight? What do you think is going to be the focus?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, this is the first debate since Israel was attacked, right? And I'm sure what is happening in the Middle East, as well as how President Biden is handling the crisis, will come up. While there are factions of the Democratic Party that have been split on how to deal with Israel as it continues to bomb Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there, Republicans have been pretty uniform in their response, and this is one of those issues where there isn't a lot of infighting in the Republican Party, which gives them an opportunity to set a contrast between themselves and the Democrats and not necessarily a contrast between each other.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Ashley Lopez. Ashley, thank you.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.