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GOP candidates must close the gap as Trump campaigns like he's already the nominee


This evening, seven Republican presidential hopefuls are expected to assemble for a second debate, this one at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Southern California. An eighth candidate will not be there, and that would be the front-runner. Instead, former President Donald Trump is scheduled to hold a campaign rally in a Detroit suburb. And this takes place against the backdrop of the autoworkers strike, although it's been widely reported he's going to a nonunion shop. And this comes a day after a New York judge found him, his two eldest sons and his business associates liable for fraud in a civil suit. And all this invites a question for the seven Republicans who will be on the debate stage tonight. What do you do when the front-runner is ignoring all of you? Mary Anna Mancuso is a Republican political strategist, and she is with us now to give us her thoughts on this. Good morning.

MARY ANNA MANCUSO: Good morning, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great. So let me just establish that you are a free agent. You're not advising any of the candidates on the debate stage, right?

MANCUSO: That is correct.

MARTIN: OK. So Trump's absence - what's the opportunity and what's the risk for those who will be there?

MANCUSO: Well, I think that it's really interesting to point out here that it is not peculiar that we're having this debate. This is actually kind of the debate that we often see as we head into the primary season of any election for president. But what is interesting is that the front-runner is not on stage. But what's even more peculiar is that most of the candidates are actually refusing to attack him. And that tells us everything that we need to know. And, you know, at the end of the day, no one on that stage genuinely believes that they have a real shot to unseat Trump, because really, what are they going to do? If they have a spectacular night, they're going to - what? - go from 6 points to 12. Trump is still leading commandingly, and that really is a problem. And I think that what's important here is we have to step back and understand something. This isn't a traditional debate. We've never had a situation in American history where the front-runner is completely disregarding the contest of ideas that are supposed to be happening in his political party, right? So we're not seeing that right now. This is an addition, and we can explain why as we get into this.

MARTIN: So, look, if you were advising one of the candidates, what might you tell them about how to approach this moment tonight - not the bigger issue, but tonight?

MANCUSO: Right. Well, so if I'm advising one of the candidates, I'm telling them that they are running for a vice presidential slot or a cabinet position, and they should act like it. But if they really want to break away, what they're going to have to do is they're going to have to attack the front-runner. However, the issue is that this is not a political party of ideas. It's a political party that is based on a loyalty oath, which is to Donald Trump. And if they don't feel - if they don't give loyalty, then, you know, that's it. And they don't want to upset Dear Leader on the stage, and that's kind of the biggest problem that we're seeing right now.

MARTIN: So is there any way that you see that the dynamic could change in this primary race? As I mentioned earlier, this is just a day after a New York judge said that he and his sons and his associates committed fraud in very strongly worded terms. Doesn't seem to have made any difference. Is there any way you see that the dynamic could change?

MANCUSO: You know, I would love to see the dynamic change, but in order to do that, we have to understand that this political party isn't acting like a political party and that in order to do this, people have to be able to say that there are problems with the fact that the front-runner is, you know, currently facing 91 felony accounts. This is a bigger sign that we should be worried about, that we have an individual who is so dangerous and is winning commandingly in the race.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, is there any way in which you think that the former president might be overestimating his advantage? I mean, there is this axiom about defining your opponent before they define you. You see he was trying on social media to sort of malign some of these candidates. But does his - do you see any opportunity for his opponents to redefine him?

MANCUSO: It is really hard to redefine him. And really what this is, is that this is going to be about stylistic differences for each of the candidates. And that is the definition of an audition that we're seeing happening tonight.

MARTIN: That is Republican political strategist Mary Anna Mancuso. Mary Anna, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing these insights.

MANCUSO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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