Seven Republicans will take the debate stage Wednesday for the second GOP presidential primary debate in California.
Former President Donald Trump, the undisputed front-runner, will not be one of them. He instead will skip the event and travel to Michigan where he plans to court the vote of autoworkers.
It's the second debate that Trump is missing, disappointing many Republican voters who have been eager to see how rivals stand up to Trump when they're side-by-side on the same stage.
But veteran Republican strategist Sean Walsh sees it as an opportunity for the other candidates and Republican voters who are looking for an alternative to Trump.
It takes some of the "game show" elements out of the evening, Walsh said.
It gives the other candidates more time to speak about their priorities instead of responding to Trump. This time around, though, unlike in Milwaukee for the first debate, those who seek to distinguish themselves from the former president are likely to face a more sympathetic audience.
"I don't think we'll have the circus audience that we had at the last debate that Fox News held," Walsh predicted. "I think that Chris Christie was going to make some very important points concerning former President Trump and he was shouted down and did not have the opportunity to do that."
It was not just former New Jersey Gov. Christie who got shouted down, of course. Any candidate who spoke out against Trump was booed.
Walsh, who served in the administrations of both former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said the debate on the grounds of Reagan's presidential library will also be opportunity for the candidates to "win back the hearts and minds of mainstream Republicans" — like him — who feel that Trump can't beat President Biden.
Trump is instead going to Michigan where he'll speak with autoworkers — another sign that he's looking ahead to the general election and focusing on Biden.
It's also a sign of how important this group of voters — and this state — are to both campaigns in the looming general election.
Trump's visit comes just a day after Biden was in Michigan where he joined union autoworkers on the picket line.
Michigan voters helped both Trump and Biden win the White House — Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Those elections were largely clinched with union voters. Biden won those voters by 20 points in 2020. Trump lost those voters overall, but by a much narrower margin, in 2016. He went on the win the state by just over 10,000 votes.
On Tuesday, Biden spoke through a bullhorn on the picket line. He told workers that they had saved the auto industry during tough times.
The auto companies are now doing "incredibly well," he said, adding that workers should be doing the same.
"You deserve what you earned," Biden said. "And you've earned a hell of a lot more than you're getting paid now."
Biden likes to call himself the most pro-union president ever. Trump has a more complicated past with unions.
In recent weeks, the former president has argued that he's always worked for autoworkers — and will continue to fight for them if he wins a second term.
In Michigan, he's expected to deliver a broader message. Trump will likely attack Biden's economic policies, particularly his focus on electric vehicles.
He's also expected to tell workers that he'd do better protecting the auto industry — and therefore their jobs, union or not.
"With Biden, it doesn't matter what hourly wages they get, in three years there will be no autoworker jobs as they will all come out of China and other countries," Trump said in a statement Tuesday, responding to Biden joining the picket line.
Trump's not expected to join a union picket line. But despite his mixed experience with union labor, he has had success courting blue collar workers away from Democrats.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has served as an informal adviser to Trump, says that's an important distinction. While Biden may have the support of union leadership, he doesn't necessarily have the support of those on the assembly line.
"Trump will do better with working-class voters than Biden will. That's the great irony," Gingrich said. "The establishment is for the old order. So, the UAW leadership is for the old order. Their membership's probably going to vote for Trump."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Seven candidates will take the stage tonight for the second Republican presidential primary debate in California.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Former President Trump will skip it. Depending on the poll you consult, he's either far ahead of his rivals or even farther ahead.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is with us now to give us a preview of what we might see tonight and also the bigger picture of how things stand in the 2024 race so far. Good morning, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.
MARTIN: So as we said, this is the second debate that Trump is skipping. Is there any way in which this debate might be different from the last one in Wisconsin?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, like before, there's going to be less attention on the debate without the front-runner, without Trump. But a key difference could be the audience. Republican strategist Sean Walsh told me that the fact that the debate is being held at Ronald Reagan's Presidential Library means attendees will be made up of more mainstream Republicans.
SEAN WALSH: I don't think we'll have the circus audience that we had at the last debate that Fox News held. I think that Chris Christie was going to make some very important points concerning former President Trump, and he was shouted down and did not have the opportunity to do that.
MARTIN: So do you think that these criticisms about Trump that Sean Walsh alluded to might actually be heard tonight on the debate stage? Do you think that other candidates, perhaps apart from Chris Christie, might have more to say?
ORDOÑEZ: They may. I mean, they're running out of time to distinguish themselves. And this crowd may be more amenable to hearing them out. I mean, of course, at that debate in Wisconsin, it wasn't just Governor Christie who was speaking out. Basically, anyone who spoke in any fashion against Trump was booed. And these other candidates, though, they don't want Trump to be the main topic either, but this could give them more of a chance to shine when they're outside of Trump's shadow.
MARTIN: All right. Speaking of Trump again, he's going to Michigan instead to speak with auto workers, but he's going to a nonunion shop. And, of course, he's going a day after President Biden was there speaking to workers on the picket line, which was widely viewed as an historic event. So what's the calculation for Trump and how he's handling that visit?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, you know, Biden has called himself the most pro-union president, but Trump has been, you know, successful at courting blue-collar workers. So he's going directly there to speak with them, as you said, but at a nonunion plant just outside Detroit. I was speaking with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He told me that Biden may have the support of union leadership, but not the men and women on the assembly line.
NEWT GINGRICH: Trump will do better with working-class voters than Biden will. That's the great irony. The establishment is for the old order. So the UAW leadership is for the old order. Their membership's probably going to vote for Trump.
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the big picture here is it just shows how important this group of voters are. Michigan voters helped both Trump and Biden win the White House - Trump in 2016, obviously, and Biden in 2020. And the union vote was a big part of that for both of them.
MARTIN: OK. Very briefly, then, Biden told union workers that they deserve more than they're getting from the auto companies. What will Trump's message be?
ORDOÑEZ: You know, he's going to attack Biden's economic policies, especially electric vehicles. Trump's likely to talk about how he's better suited to protect the industry and, therefore, their auto workers' jobs. But union leaders really, really are opposed to Trump, and they are discouraging their members from attending.
MARTIN: That is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thank you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.