Donald Trump’s dominance over the Republican primary field is on the precipice of no return. Fox News is approaching this week’s debate as if it’s now or never for everyone else.

“It’s crunch time for them,” Fox News host Dana Perino told POLITICO ahead of Wednesday’s debate. “They have supporters and donors who want to see a breakout moment.”

During the first debate in August, candidates spent more time attacking Democratic President Joe Biden than they did the GOP front-runner. Perino says if they want to succeed on the stage in California, they may have to go after Trump.

“They all agree about Joe Biden. The way to have a breakout moment is not about what you’re going to say about the current president. It’s about how you think that you would be a better president than the one we have now, or the one that we’ve had before that is running again,” Perino said.

Trump won’t be there to parry any attacks, should his rivals decide to deliver them. The former president is bypassing the second debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California for his own rally in Detroit, where he’s expected to speak to over 500 union workers representing different trades, including autoworkers, amid the ongoing UAW strike.

Trump’s decision to skip the debate — after he opted out of the first in favor of a sit-down interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson — is unsurprising, given the venue. Just days before the event, board members and advisers at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute described Trump as a “spoiled brat in a sandbox” and compared him to Voldemort.

Fox News was able to draw 12.8 million viewers during the first debate in Milwaukee. While those numbers reflected an interest in GOP candidates other than Trump, they didn’t outpace the first GOP debate in August 2015 during his first run at the White House.

Whether that interest will pull in high ratings for Fox the second time around remains to be seen, Perino said. But many voters are still hoping to avoid a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024.

“You have a significant number of Republicans who are saying they want a different choice than the two frontrunners right now — meaning Trump or Biden,” Perino said. “And so we provide the opportunity and venue in a debate so that these candidates who want to be commander in chief and who think they would be a better president than President Trump to make their case in front of millions.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has levied criticism at Fox’s first debate moderators, Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, over some of their questions
particularly a question he was asked about UFOs — and their role in controlling the stage.

The stage “was completely out of control,” Christie said during an appearance on CNN following the first debate. “And I’m disappointed that the moderators didn’t play a stronger hand in controlling what was going on.”

But keeping things civil is ultimately up to the candidates, Perino said.

“It is on my mind, thinking about the control of the debate. A lot of that does rest with the candidates though,” Perino said. “It’s up to the candidates to understand that if you’re talking over somebody that means that the microphones cancel each other out, and no one hears what you’re saying so it’s not productive. And I don’t know if there’s anything I can do about that,” she added later.

As for questions, she and co-hosts Stuart Varney of Fox and Ilia Calderón of Univision will “work together to find a way to make this the most informative debate for the people that are watching,” Perino said.

Univision is also set to air a Spanish version of Wednesday’s debate, a further sign of the Republican Party’s desire to attract Hispanic and Latino voters who have soured on Biden. That voting bloc is now central to the Biden campaign’s counterprograming, which on Friday announced a $25 million buy to air an ad titled “La Diferencia.” The 30-second ad will air in Spanish and English on a Univision simulcast of Wednesday’s debate, according to the campaign.

Latino voters are “more and more willing to consider the Republicans,” Perino said. “Now can [the candidates] bring that home? That remains to be seen, but they have an opportunity to do so.”

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