With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first debate of the 2024 Republican presidential primary, eight of his Republican rivals will vie to emerge as the party’s top alternative to the former president in their first stage showdown Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
The two-hour debate will begin at 9 pm ET. It is presented by Fox News Channel, with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as moderators.
CNN will cover the debate on cnn.com, including live updates, analysis and fact-checking.
Eight candidates will take the stage: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; businessman Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; former South Carolina Governor and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott; former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
Here are six things to watch out for in Wednesday night’s debate:
Can DeSantis handle the bright lights?
With Trump missing Wednesday night’s debate, DeSantis, who has ranked second nationally and in early-voting states among likely Republican primary voters all year, could be the most important target in the Milwaukee scene.
After all, Trump remains very popular with Republican voters, which means that attacking the former president could alienate large swaths of the primary electorate. Instead, in something of a repeat of the 2016 primaries, many Republican contenders seem focused first on positioning themselves as the most viable alternative to Trump on the field, a status now held by DeSantis.
After a 19-point reelection victory last year, DeSantis entered the Republican race with sky-high expectations. But he has yet to deliver on that promise and has been stuck in the polls as he downsizes and reshuffles his campaign staff.
A good performance Wednesday night could stabilize the Florida governor’s course.
But he’s already been through an embarrassment before the debate, when his super PAC (with whom he has unusually close ties after outsourcing a number of functions normally handled by a candidate’s own campaign) advised him in a memo to “hammer” Ramaswamy. and defend Trump if the absentee former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from that memo.
“That is a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not something I’ve read, and it doesn’t reflect my strategy,” DeSantis said Monday.
The former president’s absence from the stage offers his Republican rivals a chance to introduce themselves and discuss their own ideas for the future on the biggest night yet of the 2024 campaign.
At least that’s the advice of Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who shared the debate stage with Trump during the 2016 cycle before dropping out of the race.
“The only person who changes his mind about Donald Trump is Donald Trump, not any of the candidates,” Walker told CNN, sharing some advice he’s given to some of the contenders. “If they waste time attacking him, they are doing just that, they are wasting time. But if you go out there and have a defining moment and have passion and credibility and a bold agenda, people get excited and it builds excitement.”
He added: “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but at least it gives them a fighting chance.”
The degree to which the debate still revolves around Trump — despite his decision to skip Milwaukee — is also in the hands of the debate moderators. They have signaled their plans to try to highlight the contrasts between the Republican candidates, including Trump.
While Walker believes that at least half of Republican voters are eager to turn the page, they have little desire to attack Trump. “It’s like attacking a member of your own family,” he said.
While others might enjoy a debate without Trump, at least three of the eight candidates on the stage Wednesday — Pence, Christie and Hutchinson — have placed their criticism of the former president at the center of their campaigns.
By denying them the chance to directly confront Trump, their strategies are big question marks.
Pence has carved out his own path as a devout ideological conservative and has pushed his rivals to take clearer positions in support of federal abortion restrictions, a position those aware of a possible backlash in a general election might hesitate to take. adopt.
The former vice president’s own actions on January 6, 2021 could also prompt questions from Fox News moderators.
Christie is perhaps the biggest wild card. He will be the only candidate on the stage Wednesday night who has participated in presidential primary debates before and has a track record of outperforming his rivals (ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio).
A South Carolina standout?
Scott and Haley, the two contenders from South Carolina, are looking for their defining moments.
Scott is a prolific fundraiser with an experienced campaign team. He’s been in big moments before, delivering the 2021 Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union. And as the only black Republican in the Senate, he could help the party broaden its growing coalition of non-white conservatives.
However, he’s also a happy warrior, delivering the kind of upbeat message that can sometimes get lost in debates.
Haley also offers the GOP a diverse new leadership, but her campaign appears to believe her path to higher poll numbers lies through Ramaswamy, who has risen through the ranks in recent weeks.
On Monday, Haley lashed out at the businessman and political newcomer, saying he is “completely wrong” for his call to cut US military aid to Israel.
Meanwhile, Ramaswamy tweeted videos of himself practicing tennis and working out this week, describing those workouts as his preparation for the debate.
Trump skips the debate, but does not give up the lead. He sat down for a prerecorded interview with fired former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, which is expected to be released around the time of the debate.
Then, on Thursday, the spotlight will shift back to Trump when he turns himself in at the Fulton County Jail, the fourth such show in recent months.
The Trump campaign also sought to saturate the airwaves with its advisers and allies before and after the debate. However, Fox News informed the Trump campaign on Monday that they will no longer provide credentials to some surrogates for the former president to attend the debate turning room, as the former president is not participating in the debate.
Trump, who will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, could also launch his own verbal grenades from the sidelines. He said on his Truth Social on Tuesday: “I’LL BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW NIGHT-ENJOY!!!”
Without the favorite on stage, it is not clear if decisive moments will be possible. And if such moments do occur, the cloud Trump is casting over the 2024 Republican race raises questions about whether any of his rivals could use a strong performance Wednesday night for lasting momentum.
While frontrunners have survived primary debates in recent presidential election cycles, those vying to emerge as their party’s top alternative have seen their chances effectively dashed by their poor performance in debates.
In the 2012 Republican race, it was then-Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “ooops” moment when he forgot the name of the federal department he wanted to eliminate.
In 2016, Christie halted Rubio’s momentum when he mocked his “25-second memorized speech” about Barack Obama. “There’s everybody,” Christie said when Rubio effectively repeated the same line.
In the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dashed the hopes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the space of a minute, launching a withering critique that culminated in telling the audience to nominate Bloomberg to confront Trump would be to replace “an arrogant.” billionaire for another”.
Some 2024 Republican contenders are already telegraphing possible attacks on their rivals on the debate stage. Christie has beaten DeSantis in recent days. Haley issued a statement Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.
If any candidate faces the kind of relentless attacks that have plagued presidential hopefuls in past cycles — and how they respond to those attacks — it could alter the trajectory of the Republican race.