RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Eight candidates will take the stage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night for the first Republican presidential debate, a group that does not include former President Donald Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Alabama Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all qualified for the debate, looking to gain ground on the former president.
"We'll see some of the hot-button issues that we're used to hearing from Republicans. We'll hear them all talk probably about the 'weaponization' of government with the judiciary. That's where (Trump's legal cases) will come in. We'll hear them talk about cultural issues. I'm sure (questions on) abortion will be asked," said Dr. David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College.
According to polling averages compiled by 538, Trump has 52% support, a figure which has remained largely steady since April.
"We've never seen this big a spread. So it's not impossible to see Donald Trump not win the nomination. But it's going to take something pretty catastrophic, I would think. And that could include some of his legal issues," said McLennan.
Trump is set to surrender in Georgia on Thursday on charges stemming from alleged election interference in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Despite his absence, voters plan on tuning in to the debate.
"It's definitely one piece. It's a large piece. I think the debates are very useful for the people that really want to understand the issues and where people stand and make it go beyond kind of a popularity contest. And I do think that it's important for them to be asked hard questions and to understand what direction they would want to take our country," said Michele Morrow, a member of the Western Wake Republican Club.
Morrow said key issues include the economy, border security, and education.
"We really were impacted very dramatically with COVID, not just economically. There's a lot of businesses that shut down and never reopened, but also just in the battle for our freedoms, our personal freedoms; and that was a real battle. And I think we're looking at that now on a national level," said Morrow.
Soaring inflation and skyrocketing gas and food prices during the Biden Administration were also cited as key concerns as America looks to 2024.
"The rising cost of goods and services is just ridiculous. And it's making it hard to live and function like we used to," said Sandy Joiner, President of the Western Wake Republican Club. "And education, I know that's a big one because I care about kids getting a strong academically sound education."
North Carolina's primary is on March 5. It's a vital state for Republicans in the general election; the last Republican candidate to win the presidency without North Carolina was Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.
"(Voters) know how important it is and everybody's talking about 2024," Joiner said. "They're just excited about the election and about just the energy around (it). They know how important North Carolina is."
The two-hour debate begins at 9 p.m.