Over two hours of debate, eight Republican presidential candidates are certain to face questions ranging from pocketbook issues to defense policy, Social Security to climate change.
Inflation and the economy are routinely ranked as the top concern of Americans. Abortion is proving to be a tough topic at the polls for Republicans. And as the war in Ukraine enters its 19th month, there is a growing call for the White House to pull back its spending on the fight against Russia.
While the candidates may bring similar views on some topics, their specific policy proposals differ. Here’s a look at what topics candidates may be asked about Wednesday night on the debate stage.
Economy and taxes
On the economy, GOP candidates could face questions about the root causes and outlook for inflation, which many economists have gotten flat wrong over the past two years.
Americans are facing a higher cost of living while giant companies have been raking in massive profits, and there’s high demand for a coherent economic vision after a perplexing inflationary cycle. Interest rates are at a level not seen in years in an effort to cool inflation.
Voters may also want to know what candidates would do about the financial sector, which nearly tanked the economy earlier this year amid failures to understand rising interest rates. Smaller banks are getting squeezed while “too big to fail” banks got even bigger as depositors ran for cover.
The Republican priority of an extension of then-President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts may also be on the minds of Americans.
After 15 years of minimal investment in the U.S. economy, and with new industrial initiatives from the Biden administration, how will Republicans ensure productive reinvestment of tax breaks given to big businesses — and not just an upward redistribution of wealth?
— Tobias Burns
For the Republican candidates, abortion is at the forefront of health care policy concerns. All the candidates gathered on the debate stage have made it clear they oppose abortion, but their approaches vary by a wide margin.
The majority of the GOP hopefuls have been reluctant to fully endorse a national ban, and instead have said the issue should be left up to states.
Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis (Fla.) and Doug Burgum (N.D.) have both signed far-reaching abortion restrictions in their states but have shied away from calling for bans at the national level.
Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson (Ark.), who signed a near-total abortion ban in Arkansas, originally said the issue should be left up to states but has since said he would sign a 15-week national abortion ban if it had “appropriate exceptions.”
Special interest groups are far from satisfied with the pragmatism adopted by most candidates. The anti-abortion nonprofit group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) has called on candidates to support a national abortion ban of at least 15 weeks if they wish to receive the group’s support. The refusal by some candidates has led to conflict with the organization.
Only Hutchinson, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and former Vice President Mike Pence have said they would support abortion bans at the national level, with Scott supporting a ban at 15 weeks and Pence supporting a six-week national ban.
In contrast to the SBA, Students for Life Action is arguing that a 15-week ban is not enough and is calling on candidates to express a full vision of “what a Post-Roe America should look like.”
In anticipation of the debate, Planned Parenthood launched its first ad campaign of the 2024 presidential race in Wisconsin.
— Joseph Choi and Nathaniel Weixel
Ukraine and defense policy
A major foreign policy issue likely to surface is continued defense funding for Ukraine, as Kyiv struggles to gain ground with its counteroffensive.
DeSantis has called the war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute,” although he later walked the comments back after a storm of criticism, including from his own party. Most of the Republican presidential candidates back continued Ukraine support.
Another defense topic that has drawn pointed criticism from most Republicans is “woke” policies and programs at the Pentagon, such as support for diversity, equity and inclusion programs or climate change initiatives.
Republicans might clash on the details, including over a months-long hold from Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) on more than 300 military nominees. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have criticized the senator for impacting the military. The candidates speculated on a more effective way to protest a Pentagon reimbursement policy for service members who travel to get an abortion.
Chinese ambitions to unite with the self-governing island nation of Taiwan and build up a military presence abroad is another leading concern for Republican candidates.
Haley, one of the most vocal China hawks, has said the U.S. has not done enough to combat China’s aggression at home and across the globe.
— Brad Dress
Border security and immigration
Border security is a hot issue that everyone on the debate stage could agree on.
Trump’s hawkish-and-a-half approach to immigration and the border has become GOP orthodoxy, and candidates will compete to show their adherence.
DeSantis will have an opportunity to peacock his “Trump with results” persona on immigration, touting Florida’s new tough immigration laws and the state’s migrant relocation policy.
More measured candidates such as Pence, Scott and Haley could use the border and immigration to try out tougher lines to appeal to the party base; others such as DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, more prone to controversial statements, could aim to score a campaign-defining line.
The issue will also provide candidates with ample opportunity to attack President Biden and repeat the mantra of “Biden’s border crisis,” a crowd-pleaser among Republicans.
The debate will lack both a voice from the border and a Hispanic voice, as former Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez did not qualify for it.
— Rafael Bernal
Budget and entitlements
Changes to entitlements could come up during the debate, as the funding threats facing programs such as Social Security have garnered more interest on Capitol Hill.
The Congressional Budget Office projected last month that the total deficit for fiscal 2023 would reach $1.7 trillion, up $200 billion from its projection earlier this year.
The office also estimated an increase of 12 percent in outlays for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — totaling $244 billion — for the 10-month period ending in July.
As heated funding debates entangle both sides in Washington, lawmakers have dueled over where to cut funding. However, there has been more focus on trimming discretionary spending as lawmakers shy away from discussing potential changes to shore up solvency for entitlements — often seen as third rail in politics.
But that doesn’t mean the issue hasn’t come up on the campaign trail.
Days back, Christie said it’s time to take a “political risk,” while discussing eligibility changes to benefits for Social Security he said would affect younger people.
Pence also drew attention earlier this year in calling for “common sense” reforms to entitlements that would affect those now younger than 40, saying the programs face a “debt crisis.”
— Aris Folley
Energy and environment
Among the candidates who made the stage, attitudes on climate change have historically ranged from skepticism to lack of urgency.
Record heat this summer and devastating wildfires in the Hawaiian archipelago may make the subject more likely to come up, but don’t look for any of the candidates to call for sweeping cuts to carbon emissions.
President Biden’s efforts to boost the renewable energy sector will likely be a target, and broader attacks on his economic record will likely bring up energy costs.
Trump, the absent front-runner, has a history of falsely calling climate change a hoax, so it’s not out of the question for Christie, the candidate most openly critical of Trump, to hit him on that stance.
— Zack Budryk
Education could be a topic of interest, as the party in recent years has turned the once Democratic-dominated issue on its head.
GOP leaders around the country have pushed forward legislation that changes curriculum standards, provides more school choice options and bans discussions of certain topics such as critical race theory and gender identity.
In particular, DeSantis has made education a pivotal point in his governorship and campaign, making national headlines over his state’s reported book bans, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and his administration’s public back-and-forths with the College Board over the content of its Advanced Placement classes.
Candidates will likely run on a message of putting parents first in education, which has been a big selling point for Republicans during the pandemic, and focus on keeping what they call “indoctrination” out of schools.
However, candidates also may be called upon to address other concerns outside ones that play to the Republican base, such as student loans. They will likely lean into messages about the fairness of student debt relief to taxpayers who never went to school or already paid off their debts.
— Lexi Lonas
Tech and social media
Republicans have been targeting social media companies over their communication with the federal government and their content moderation decisions, alleging that they have shown an anti-conservative bias when censoring content. The candidates may face questions about those allegations during Wednesday night’s debate.
Another hot topic the candidates may be pressed on is how they would handle the popular video sharing platform TikTok. The app has faced pushback from members of both parties, based on concerns over its Chinese-based parent company. Trump sought a ban on the app while he was in office.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have also raised concerns about children’s safety online, both in terms of privacy and the impact on teen mental health. That topic may also be addressed.
— Rebecca Klar
Updated at 10:02 a.m. ET