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3rd Republican presidential primary debate will be held Wednesday in Miami

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The third Republican presidential primary debate will be held this week in Miami. Now, a lot's happened since the last GOP debate was held in late September - Israel went to war against Hamas, a rebellion in the House GOP conference led to the ouster of Kevin McCarthy, then, after weeks, a new speaker, Mike Johnson, was voted in. Also, former Vice President Mike Pence dropped out of the race, and front-runner Donald Trump has made several court appearances. Now he's due to take the witness stand today in his civil fraud trial in New York. So we're wondering how might all of these events affect what's going on with the Republican primary debates? Political strategist Rina Shah is on the line. So, Rina, Trump won't be among the five or so candidates expected to debate on Wednesday. Which candidate of the ones who are left has managed to move the needle the most since the last debate?

RINA SHAH: Good morning. It seems that Nikki Haley is the candidate to beat going into this third debate this week. What we know right now is that Nikki Haley has managed to get some heads turning with her performance at the first and second debate. The question now becomes how much runway is she able to really make up between herself and Trump? That is going to be the question de jour as we even move past this third debate. It's taking place in Miami. Of course, there's somebody on the stage who runs that state, the governor of Florida. We are looking at Ron DeSantis as a person who was the one to beat coming into this primary season, and now we're not sure what his performance is going to look like on this stage. But one thing is for sure, he still manages to hang 10 - as the youngsters would call it - with Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy. That trio is one to watch.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it a home state advantage for DeSantis, you think?

SHAH: I wouldn't be so sure. Let's not forget where he seems to lack sometimes on the issues. Abortion is something he has never quite come out and talked about his exact actions in the state, which were done in the dark of night, the six-week ban. Now, another thing that Ron DeSantis seems to suffer from - and this has been long talked about in Republican circles, particularly in Washington, where he was once a congressman - is his likability. As he's been on the trail in these early states, people are not so sure he's very charismatic. And also, sometimes, he's a bit awkward on the stage, in my estimation. So that is a tough bit, because something about Trump would always seem to win out. And it was his supporters who would say that he was somebody who seemed approachable, who seemed very steadfast and strong in his beliefs and would voice them loudly. Not something Ron DeSantis does.

MARTÍNEZ: Even though Trump has not taken part in any of the debates, it seems as if he still has a grip on the GOP. Is that still the case that Donald Trump is clearly still in control of the Republican Party?

SHAH: Well, certainly with the exit from the field of former Vice President Pence, that puts more light on how Trump seems rather unbeatable when his own VP couldn't seem to make up for that very fact that he could be a top challenger to these others in the field. When I think about the Trump alternatives, I don't think so much about how everyone still seems to coalesce around President Trump. And I'm talking those on Capitol Hill and particularly in elected circles around the country. I'm looking at the base, his faction of supporters within today's GOP. They have been dwindling in size. The empirical data shows that they perhaps are loud and do respond to the polls quite a bit, but they may not be that turnout that could really tip the election in the favor of the Republicans when it comes to putting up a candidate in the general. So I would caution folks, be wary of the polls about Trump.

MARTÍNEZ: Political strategist Rina Shah is a former senior congressional aide to two Republican members of the House. Rina, thank you very much for your time.

SHAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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