The clock is ticking for the GOP primary candidates looking to mount a serious challenge to former President Trump for the nomination, says Dana Perino, a leading anchor and political analyst at Fox News who is moderating the race’s second debate this week.
“It’s obvious that President Trump’s lead is commanding and enduring and durable,” she said during a recent interview with The Hill. “But the debate is not just to showcase these candidates. It’s for one of them to say ‘I can be his main rival.’ So I anticipate that the candidates know this is a really important moment for them.”
Perino, a onetime leading press aide in former President George W. Bush’s White House, is one of the three moderators for this week’s debate, which will air Wednesday evening on Fox Business.
Trump, the race’s clear front-runner, skipped the first GOP primary debate last month and has said he does not plan to attend Wednesday’s.
The former president has for months been ridiculing Fox over its coverage of him and has cited his “hostile” relationship with the network, along with his large polling lead, as a reason for skipping the debates Fox is hosting.
Perino said she has not attempted to convince Trump to attend this week’s event.
“I think that he had already made it clear … he wasn’t going, and so I didn’t reach out,” she told Axios during a separate interview published Monday.
But the anchor and leading Fox personality expects there will be plenty of fireworks on the stage without Trump in attendance.
“The first debate, everybody was getting their feet wet, introducing themselves to the GOP electorate, but now their donors and their supporters want to see if they’ve got legs to go the distance,” Perino told The Hill. “So you’ll see some posturing, I believe, in this debate because it is time for a breakout moment.”
Stuart Varney, a host on Fox Business who is co-moderating with Perino, said while polling has consistently shown the economy is a top priority for voters, debate watchers should not expect issues of money, business and economics to be “the end all be all of this event.”
“We’re going to cover a wide variety of subjects … I just want to dispel the notion that this is all about the economy; it’s not,” Varney told The Hill. “These candidates have to be in a position to answer any and all questions on any and all issues. If they want to be president, that’s what they’ve got to do.”
Varney declined to name any candidate in particular who needs a breakout moment the most, but he suggested it might be difficult for a GOP hopeful who is “not on the debate stage” to make a splash amid the flood of headlines typically produced by the prime-time television event.
Trump has plans to speak to autoworkers Wednesday in Michigan amid the ongoing labor contract dispute between the nation’s largest automakers and their employees.
“Breaking news, if it is of major significance to the election, it will come up in the debate,” Varney said. “We’ve just had the strike extended to 38 other locations … I don’t know whether this strike will continue to debate day, but if it does, I’m pretty sure it will come up as a topic as a brand-new news item.”
Perino, who has never moderated a political debate, said prepping for this week’s event has given her new perspective on the Republican Party, which has changed significantly since the days she helped craft messaging for it.
“Here’s what I’ve found fascinating about covering this election: Literally anything can happen right now,” Perino said. “It’s just interesting to go through this political realignment again, and I’d love to see who thinks they can lead the party not just for the next four years but their job is to look ahead 10, 15, 20 years … you better believe there is going to be some tension and probably some aggression to try and see who can pop through.”
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