What to look for in the first Republican presidential debate

MILWAUKEE — Eight non-Donald Trump Republican presidential candidates will go head-to-head here Wednesday night in the much-anticipated first debate of the primary season.

The former president and current GOP frontrunner for the 2024 nomination plans to skip the event and counter-program it in the safety and convenience of a pre-taped interview with right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson.

But Trump will be very present in spirit.

His criminal charges, including charges related to his efforts to tilt the 2020 election in his favor, were a bugbear in the race. And questions about Trump’s character and his suitability for the post are puzzling his rivals. They all had to swear allegiance to their party’s eventual candidate in exchange for a seat on the stage. (Trump himself did not sign the pledge.)

How Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum deal with the absent Trump will be one of several storylines to watch. But with few exceptions, Republican competitors showed little interest in taking on him directly.

Scheduled to take the stage at 9 p.m. ET are: Doug Burgum, Gov. of North Dakota; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson; former Vice President Mike Pence; businessman Vivek Ramaswamy; and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. To qualify for debate, they had to meet minimum polling thresholds set by the Republican National Committee and record at least 40,000 unique donors.

As for the other storylines to keep an eye on Wednesday night:

How do the candidates deal with an absent Trump?

Christie and Hutchinson have been the most vocal in their opposition to Trump, but both are in the single digits in the polls.

For others, given his high standing in polls, criticizing Trump might be a calculated risk. But with the former president out of sight, if not out of sight, the debate will offer an opportunity for candidates who have been reluctant to clearly dissociate themselves from Trump to finally do so.

Second row candidates like DeSantis and RamaswamyFor example, they vaguely stated that they acted differently on January 6, 2021, when Trump’s efforts to block the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory culminated in a deadly riot in the Capitol. And Pence, who as Vice President ignored Trump’s pleas for intervention, has said explicitly that Trump was wrong.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar question to the ones posed to candidates during the last few weeks of campaigning: what would You What would you have done if you were Vice President on January 6th? And tiptoeing around the question might have a very different effect on a TV audience of millions than it would on a crowd of reporters sipping pork chops and fried Oreos at the Iowa State Fair.

Memo to DeSantis: Don’t get beat up

With Trump refusing to participate in the first debate, DeSantis will not only take center stage but, as several strategists and his own allies have indicated, he will also be the subject of numerous attacks from rivals intent on overtaking him.

A memo penned by new DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier said the campaign was “fully prepared for the attacks,” adding that the debate was the “biggest chance yet” for his rivals “to make headlines by raising the… Attack Governor, so we know they’re going to do their best.”

DeSantis’ evening will depend on his ability to withstand the onslaught, return fire of his own, and convince enough primary voters that despite his stumbling blocks, he remains the best Trump alternative. Unfortunately for the Florida governor, an earlier memo released by a Super PAC supporting his bid revealed an outline of the strategy his allies want him to do, making it all the more difficult given his rivals and the news, actually putting them into practice on stage. The media might brand him as a follower rather than a leader.

The goals outlined in that memo for DeSantis included attacking Ramaswamy and defending Trump from attacks by Christie. Both candidates subsequently mocked DeSantis, who told reporters last week he hadn’t read the memo. It’s also worth noting that the last time a Florida presidential candidate used canned slogans in a debate with Christie, it didn’t go well.

“A Florida politician proving he can take the lines of his advisors… what could possibly go wrong?” Christie Posted Monday on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

Speaking of…

Does Christie find a new target?

Christies Blow attack on overly rehearsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio ahead of the 2016 New Hampshire primary is considered one of the most vicious, and potentially momentous, debate moments of recent cycles. Rubio was on the upswing after a strong showing in the Iowa primary, finishing by a wide margin in fifth place. And Christie was right behind him in sixth place.

This time, Christie’s main focus is on Trump, who will not be on stage to defend himself. This offers Christie an opportunity to reiterate his criticism of Trump while also prevailing against the Republican candidates who are standing between him and the former president in the polls. Second-place DeSantis would make sense as a target, as would Ramaswamy or Scott.

Can Vivek handle the heat?

In a field of governors, current and former congressmen and even the former vice president, few expected Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman and self-proclaimed “anti-Woke” crusader, to catch fire.

And yet here we are: polls show that Ramaswamy ranks second in the primary field nationally. He’s one of the few candidates who has seen an increase in poll numbers since the campaign began, although his early state numbers aren’t quite as good as his national results.

But that surge will be put to the test on Wednesday. DeSantis allies and Haley herself have signaled that Ramaswamy will face severe criticism on stage for his past and current positions. Meanwhile, it’s an open question how Ramaswamy will fare in a nationwide debate as, unlike many of his on-stage rivals, he’s never taken part in one before.

However, he doesn’t seem to be sweating. At least don’t sweat the debate.

Who Will Win the Battle of the South Carolinas?

From the beginning of their presidential campaigns, Haley and Scott have been contrasted, fair or unfair. Both are candidates from minority backgrounds, hailing from the same early primary state, who caused a stir as young (older) conservative leaders in their party.

Will one of them break through? Neither candidate has garnered much favor in the polls so far, although Scott has had some encouraging early results in the states, while both have respectable bases in their home state.

A win for one could mean a significant slump for the other. And we don’t know yet if the two will attack each other on stage.

Can a total failure steal the show?

Polls and donor thresholds did not prevent largely unknown candidates from qualifying. Burgum used his personal fortune to advertise to small change donors and to offer gift cards. Hutchinson leaned on his anti-Trump message, using invitations to appear on television news programs to honor the unique donor mark days before the RNC deadline.

Really all candidates who are not named Trump are still a long way off at this point. But qualifying for the second debate will be particularly difficult for the bottom candidates. The one percent performances that helped Hutchinson travel to Milwaukee, for example, will not be enough to get him on the stage at next month’s debate in California. Pressure will be on these candidates to create a breakthrough that can help increase donations and poll numbers to keep their campaigns alive.

One candidate to watch on this front: Burgum. He’s already spent a small fortune honing his story as a straight-forward software entrepreneur-turned-governor. Can he capitalize on this prime-time opportunity? Or does he stay in the background?

Brian Ashcraft

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