No Trump, more problems. What are the stakes for Republicans at the second GOP debate?

Republican voters will have another opportunity to kick the tires on the 2024 presidential candidates who take the stage Wednesday for the second GOP primary debate.

Seven candidates who met the Republican National Committee's qualifications will face off against each other at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. The participants include: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who qualified for the first debate, did not make the stage this time.

Former President Donald Trump has declined to participate and will instead hold a rally with current and former United Auto Workers members in the Detroit area amid an ongoing strike by the union against the automakers.

Trump remains the unquestionable front-runner in the primary, and aside from a barrage of attacks at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, he has largely ignored other contenders for the Republican nomination. Polling out of New Hampshire, for instance, shows Trump holding a 26-point lead over his nearest competitor.

Republican presidential candidates (L-R), former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are introduced during the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 8 presidential hopefuls squared off in the first Republican debate as former U.S. President Donald Trump, currently facing indictments in four locations, declined to participate in the event.

That leaves the question of what, if anything, the other contenders must do to chip away at Trump's lead and gain traction with the GOP base.

Here's a look at what is at stake for each of the candidates who have qualified for Wednesday's debate.

DeSantis faces nosedive, must go on offensive against Trump

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Pray Vote Stand Summit in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Pray Vote Stand Summit in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15, 2023.

DeSantis risks losing his title as Trump's chief rival in the contest after months of attacks and scrutiny have taken a toll.

A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll released last week showed DeSantis plummeting by 13 percentage points among likely voters in the Granite State since July. The drop took Florida's governor from second at 23% to fifth with 10% support.

DeSantis, who gained prominence in the conservative universe for being Florida's chief culture warrior, noticeably didn't lay a finger on Trump during the first debate.

But while campaigning in Iowa recently, DeSantis said anti-abortion activists "should know that (Trump's) preparing to sell you out" after the former president called Florida's six-week ban on abortion a "terrible mistake" politically. He later told a TV news station Trump "believes he's entitled" to the nomination and isn't "doing the work it takes to really earn people's votes."

DeSantis can't afford to lose more ground, so many expect he will be more aggressive on stage this week.

Haley likely to emphasize ability to beat Biden or Harris

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley campaigns for president on Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley campaigns for president on Sept. 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

If anyone received an adrenaline rush out of the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, it was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who saw a boost in the polls.

Haley has been trying to strike a more traditional tone for a Republican nominee, emphasizing fiscal policies such as cutting middle-class taxes as a way to ease economic struggles.

During a speech in New Hampshire, where she is polling third, Haley said her former boss was "thin-skinned and easily distracted."

Haley has also leaned into her foreign policy background as U.N. ambassador under Trump, saying he was strong at first on international affairs but has become "weak in the knees" in terms of supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Where Haley is likely to distinguish herself the most Wednesday is by emphasizing surveys showing that she is the best Republican to defeat President Joe Biden in a hypothetical general election. She has also recently made Vice President Kamala Harris a foil in her interviews, saying she is her real opponent.

Ramaswamy must prove staying power

Biotech millionaire and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy acknowledges his supporters at the conclusion of one of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds' "Fair-Side Chats" at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls are visiting the fair, a tradition in one of the first states that will test candidates with the 2024 caucuses.

Vivek Ramaswamy's campaign has been a quest to "out-Trump" Trump, which got him to the center of the debate stage in August.

That also came with inheriting a brighter spotlight from opponents, who slammed him as inexperienced, and reporters, who have taken a closer look at his "revolutionary" ideas and life story.

In the weeks since the first debate, the 38-year-old biotech millionaire has stayed in the news for various reasons: flip-flopping on joining TikTok as a way to appeal to younger voters; declaring that Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., a Black woman, is a part of the “modern KKK"; and defending his past use of a temporary visa program for high-skilled foreign workers, despite his calls to dismantle the system.

The question is whether Ramaswamy will be a momentary flavor of voters seeking a Trump alternative while asking why they should chose a diet version of the former president.

Perhaps picking up on that question, Ramaswamy said at a campaign event in Ohio last week how his "friend" Trump misled Republicans when he promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

"Eight years later, did it happen? No, it did not," Ramaswamy said. "It is a false promise if it is contingent on Congress."

Pence seeks to separate GOP from Trump's populism

DES MOINES, IOWA - AUGUST 11: Former U.S. Vice President and current presidential candidate Mike Pence (C) and his wife Karen Pence (L) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) tour the Iowa State Fair on August 11, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, are expected to visit the fair, a tradition in one of the first states to hold caucuses in 2024. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 776016570 ORIG FILE ID: 1608469967

Mike Pence has one of the most difficult tightropes to walk in the 2024 primary. Trump's former vice president says he is proud of their record while finding ways to contrast himself with the man who placed him on the 2016 ticket.

As of late Pence, a former congressman and governor, has been calling out Trump's populist style, saying it hurts Republicans in the long run and isn't compatible with conservatism. He stressed how Trumpism − and by extension the MAGA movement − is more about "personal grievances and performative outrage" than traditional conservative principles in a speech in New Hampshire.

"The truth is, Donald Trump, along with his imitators, often sound like an echo of the progressives they would replace," Pence said.

The question coming into Wednesday is can Pence convince a significant portion of Republicans that being the traditional GOP standard-bearer can effectively win a primary.

Scott risks being forgettable as abortion differences arise

GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Tim Scott visited the Spark Center at Spartanburg Community College's Duncan campus on Sept. 15, 2023. Sen. Scott talked about his policy plans during a roundtable discussion with community leaders.
GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Tim Scott visited the Spark Center at Spartanburg Community College's Duncan campus on Sept. 15, 2023. Sen. Scott talked about his policy plans during a roundtable discussion with community leaders.

Sen. Tim Scott's nice-guy approach resulted in him being largely forgotten in the first GOP debate in August, when he spoke for about eight minutes during the two-hour event.

One area where he could find more room to breathe is the differences among Republicans on abortion access. Scott is a staunch social conservative and has said in interviews that Trump is "wrong" on abortion and that the country needs a "pro-life president in the future."

Scott, much like Pence, will have to make a case for why supporting a 15-week national abortion ban is a political winner at a time when progressives are winning statewide referendums.

The senator from South Carolina may also find time to carve out his position on striking auto workers after jousting with UAW President Shawn Fain, who filed an unfair labor practice claim against Scott for suggesting striking workers should be fired.

"They want to threaten me and shut me up," Scott said. "They don’t scare me."

Christie continues to prosecute Trump's legal woes, character

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed voters in Rye, NH on Sept. 11 at a "No BS BBQ" hosted by former U.S. Senator and ambassador Scott Brown and his wife, Gail Huff Brown.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed voters in Rye, NH on Sept. 11 at a "No BS BBQ" hosted by former U.S. Senator and ambassador Scott Brown and his wife, Gail Huff Brown.

Chris Christie remains the most outspoken Republican in terms of focusing almost exclusively on warning primary voters that Trump's four criminal trials will be a fatal flaw in 2024.

The former New Jersey governor also is calling Trump a chicken for once again bypassing a debate.

"If I was him, I wouldn't want to show up to the debate either," Christie said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. He cited the Trump administration's failure to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, balance the budget or repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But Christie faces a popularity problem himself that he will have to overcome: Polling shows just 17% of New Hampshire Republicans have a favorable view of him, according to the CNN/University of New Hampshire poll. Even worse is that 60% of likely GOP primary voters in the survey said they wouldn't support Christie under any circumstance.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What each Republican needs to do at second GOP debate without Trump