Debate performances are often judged relative to the expectations established by the candidates and the media. (UBS)

The former president holds a commanding lead in recent polls of likely Republican voters, so his decision to forego participation may have been grounded in a belief that there was little to gain in exposing himself to criticism from political rivals. His legal challenges in both the civil and criminal courts also might have led to uncomfortable questions from debate moderators.

Donald Trump is attempting a political comeback accomplished only once before in American history. While history is replete with examples of candidates repeatedly seeking the Oval Office, only one former president has managed to win a national election after retiring from office or being defeated as an incumbent. Grover Cleveland succeeded in returning for a second act after a four-year interregnum, thereby becoming both the 22nd and 24th US president. Martin Van Buren (in 1848) and Theodore Roosevelt (in 1912), both of whom ran on third party tickets, failed to accomplish the same feat. The paucity of examples, combined with his current legal challenges, suggests that Mr. Trump faces a challenging road ahead despite a commanding lead within his own party 15 months before the general election.

Debate performances are often judged relative to the expectations established by the candidates and the media. When expectations are low, a strong performance can close the gap in voter support by surprising skeptics and eliciting new interest in a presidential campaign. In the absence of Donald Trump, many of the candidates seemed intent on taking the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and their competitors. It didn't take long for sparks to fly and the debate's moderators struggled occasionally to maintain order.

The biggest surprise of the night was the degree to which Governor Ron DeSantis escaped criticism; the other candidates' ire was directed more frequently towards technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. President Biden was subjected to withering criticism, which was hardly surprising, but the debate also managed to highlight a consensus among the candidates regarding competition with China and public education reform. Financial and military aid to Ukraine was the most prominent area of disagreement. A second Republican primary debate will occur on 27 September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in California. Candidates will have to demonstrate a higher degree of support in national polls to qualify, so the stage may be less crowded than it was last night.

Main contributors: Thomas McLoughlin and Nadia Lovell

Read the original blog It's still early 24 August 2023.

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