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Former President Donald Trump criticized electric vehicles as “too expensive” on Wednesday, just hours before seven of his Republican rivals are set to square off in the second 2024 GOP primary debate.

Speaking at a Michigan auto parts supplier, Trump argued EVs don’t have adequate range and slammed the Biden administration for pushing the auto industry’s transition away from gas-powered cars. His comments come as thousands of UAW workers remain on strike against top automakers.

Meanwhile in California, the two-hour Republican debate will kick off at 9 p.m. ET at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It airs on Fox Business and features Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former VP Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and four other 2024 hopefuls.

Trump is skipping the debate for the second time to hold a dueling event highlighting his rift with the party establishment. By speaking concurrently with his rivals, Trump aims to diminish the debate’s impact and media spotlight.

Trump Seeks UAW Backing With Anti-EV Stance

Campaigning in the critical battleground state of Michigan, Trump railed against EVs before a crowd containing United Auto Workers members. “They don’t go far enough and they’re too expensive,” he argued.

Trump has tried courting the UAW vote as thousands of workers strike GM, Ford and Chrysler plants demanding higher pay and benefits. But his speech venue — a nonunion parts supplier — drew rebuke from UAW President Shawn Fain.

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Analysts say Trump’s anti-EV message clashes with both the UAW and Biden administration’s push toward electric vehicle adoption. But it resonates with some auto workers fearing job losses in the transition.

Haley and Ramaswamy Seek Debate Breakthrough

Of the candidates debating Wednesday, Nikki Haley and political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy arguably gained the most momentum from the first GOP debate in August. Both will aim to build on that performance.

Haley has polled better nationally and in early primary states like New Hampshire since jousting with several opponents last debate. Ramaswamy also created buzz by launching the most attacks in a fiery debut.

The recent rise of Haley and Ramaswamy came partly at the expense of early DeSantis momentum. The Florida governor is still widely seen as Trump’s top rival, but his standing has slipped since August.

Ad Blitzes Target Debate Viewers

Both Democrats and Republicans rolled out new ads timed around the debate broadcast. The DNC ran aerial banners near the Reagan Library blasting “GOP 2024” as a “Race For The Extreme MAGA Base”.

Meanwhile, the conservative Koch political network launched a debate-night ad accusing Biden’s policies of “crushing us” through high inflation and economic mismanagement.

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On the candidate level, Nikki Haley published digital ads on Facebook and elsewhere asking donors for debate-day contributions. The ads aim to capitalize on likely high viewer interest.

Scott Leads Rivals in Supportive Ad Spending

Of the contenders on stage Wednesday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has seen the most ad spending boosting his campaign: over $51 million so far, per AdImpact.

Florida’s DeSantis comes next with $39 million in ad support, followed by Donald Trump at $27 million. However, Trump has dominated most 2024 polling even while skipping the debates.

The ad spending totals reflect each campaign’s own buys combined with any outside group ads backing the candidate. Scott’s allies have gone all-in, while Trump is still largely sitting out this phase.

Previewing Tonight’s Key Policy Clashes

With Donald Trump absent, the seven Republicans debating will likely target each other more aggressively to stand out. Areas for potential conflict include:

  • Immigration: Trump’s hardline policies remain influential, but DeSantis and others may pitch more moderate approaches.
  • Abortion: Scott and Haley back 15-week bans, while Pence and others favor stricter limitations. A wedge issue.
  • Ukraine aid: Haley and others denounce calls to cut assistance, setting up clashes with non-interventionists like Trump.
  • Big Tech: Candidates like Ramaswamy advocate regulating or even dismantling major tech firms over bias claims.
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Trump Weighs in from Michigan Rally

Speaking concurrently with the debate, Donald Trump riffed on many of his signature issues like immigration and China before his Michigan audience.

He knocked the Biden administration’s support for EVs and took credit for progress making vaccines available during the pandemic. Trump also reiterated false claims about the 2020 election being “rigged.”

While light on policy specifics, Trump’s speech underscored the sway he still holds over Republican voters nationwide. He remains the clear frontrunner, making it an uphill battle for his rivals debating tonight.

Debate Seen Having Modest Impact

With Trump absent again, analysts caution the second GOP debate may fail to shake up the 2024 race significantly. The former president still dominates headlines even from afar.

But strong performances from Haley, DeSantis or lower-polling candidates like Christie could reshuffle the non-Trump field. Weak showings may spell doom for some lagging contenders.

Above all, the debate represents a high-profile chance for Republicans to sharpen contrasts with Trump and Biden on policy. Voters want solutions on the economy, crime and immigration.

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