Republican presidential candidates, top row from left: Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy, bottom row from left: Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Republican presidential contenders will face off Wednesday night in their first debate of the primary season — minus frontrunner Donald Trump, who continues to lead his GOP rivals by a double-digit margin.

The former president’s absence exposes his closest challenger, Ron DeSantis, to intensified attacks from lesser-known candidates eager to make their mark and stay in the race. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will look to seize the spotlight to overtake the Florida governor, whose campaign is reeling after a series of missteps.

China, economic policy and the war in Ukraine are all expected to be key topics of discussion, along with abortion rights and immigration.

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Voters and political donors will be scrutinising the candidates’ performances to see who deserves their support with the party’s first nominating contests set for January.

The two-hour debate in Milwaukee will air on Fox News at 9pm Eastern time (9pm EST/ 5am Thursday UAE) with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as hosts.

Here’s what to expect:

Who will appear on stage

In addition to DeSantis, Scott and Ramaswamy, five other presidential aspirants qualified to be on stage: former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Each of the debate participants met the Republican National Committee’s threshold of drawing at least 40,000 donors and 1 per cent support in polls, and they have signed a pledge to back the eventual Republican nominee.

But Burgum injured his leg while playing basketball with staffers on Tuesday, and it’s unclear whether he will be able to stand for two hours on the debate stage, his campaign said.

Others like Miami Mayor Francis Suarez didn’t meet the criteria and won’t participate.

Milwaukee is the site of the party’s nominating convention next year, and Wisconsin is among roughly a half-dozen states seen as crucial to winning the general election.

The elephant in the room

After toying for weeks about whether he’d participate, Trump announced on Sunday that he will not attend. It is unclear if he plans to boycott all three planned debates, but he will be represented at the site by high-profile politicians offering Trump-friendly spin.

The candidate himself sat down for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that may run at the same time. The other candidates have sought to capitalize on the former president’s reluctance to be scrutinized in recent days, and it is likely he will loom over the discussion. How far they are willing to break from Trump could define the remainder of the primary.

DeSantis as the target

DeSantis, who trails Trump by 41 percentage points according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, has the most at stake. Before entering the race, the Florida governor was touted as the best chance for the GOP to move past Trump, but his campaign has suffered from dwindling cash, leadership shake ups and sliding poll numbers.

n Trump’s absence, DeSantis expects to be the biggest target of his other rivals. The campaign has enlisted veteran debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who aided US Senator Mitt Romney and former President George W. Bush with debate prep, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Divisions on support for Ukraine

Support for Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion has divided the candidates and could spark a clash. Several have expressed support for President Joe Biden’s policy but said he was too slow to provide help. DeSantis called it a territorial dispute but walked back the remark amid criticism. Ramaswamy has advocated giving annexed territories to Russia and ending sanctions. Recent polls show a majority of Republicans think Congress shouldn’t authorize more funding and that the US has done enough to help Ukraine, even as Americans more broadly are supportive.

Who is the best Trump alternative?

The candidates have largely been defending Trump, hoping to move his loyal base to their camps, but not providing much of a distinction. A forum without Trump gives them an opportunity to really set themselves apart and give GOP voters a reason to vote for someone other than Trump. Christie, however, has pulled no punches. He’s known for his debating prowess and his dislike of Trump. Also, Hutchinson will have his biggest opportunity yet to hone his criticism of the former president.