Eight Republican presidential candidates face off for the first primary debate of the 2024 cycle Wednesday — with frontrunner Donald Trump bidding to steal the spotlight despite spurning the showdown.
The former president announced at the weekend that he would not be in Milwaukee for the two-hour event, depriving a chasing pack of rivals — who he leads by a historic margin — of the opportunity to take shots at him.
“President Trump has already won this evening’s debate because everything is going to be about him,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior aide on the 77-year-old billionaire’s campaign.
“Only President Trump has the policy ideas, the fortitude, and the polling to go head-to-head with Crooked Joe Biden in the general election.”
With the largest polling lead in more than 40 years of Republican presidential nominating contests, Trump has made clear he sees no benefit to standing on a debate stage and opening himself up to hits from the rest of the field.
He announced Wednesday that he is planning counterprogramming that will consist of a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, to be posted online just as the debate gets underway.
“‘SPARKS WILL FLY.’ ENJOY!” he teased on his social network, Truth Social.
Despite his no-show, Trump is expected to loom over the debate stage in Wisconsin’s largest city, with his multiple prosecutions set to be the subject of questions from the Fox News hosts moderating the event.
– ‘I can take it’ –
The former reality TV star is even planning to deprive his rivals of post-debate headlines as he surrenders to authorities in Atlanta Thursday afternoon over his fourth indictment of the year, for an alleged criminal conspiracy to steal the 2020 election.
His former attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is charged with racketeering in the case alongside Trump and 17 other co-defendants, headed to Georgia’s capital hours before the debate to turn himself in.
“I’m a big boy. I can take it. I have fought battles much worse than this,” Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, told reporters outside his New York residence.
For Trump’s closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the name of the game will be to reverse his flagging poll numbers and demonstrate that he is a viable alternative to the frontrunner.
Candidates will likely be asked about competition with China and America’s foreign policy in Ukraine and Russia — an issue that caused DeSantis to stumble early in the campaign.
With a seismic shift needed to dethrone Trump, many commentators were viewing the debate as primarily a showcase for candidates angling to be Trump’s running mate.
Lower profile candidates like businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will see the debate as a chance to introduce themselves to the wider public — and perhaps make their case for jobs in a future Trump administration.
“Tonight’s Republican undercard event really shouldn’t even be called a debate, but rather an audition to be a part of President Trump’s team in his second term,” LaCivita said.
– ‘Not a coronation’ –
But analysts have argued that with more than four months until the first nomination votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is way too early to call the race.
“If the same person finishes first or second in Iowa and New Hampshire, this becomes a two-person race no matter how many other people (are) in it… Nobody’s caught the wave yet but somebody’s going to and when they do, Trump’s going to have a race on his hands,” former US senator Judd Gregg told political outlet The Hill.
Trump dodged a debate in Iowa in 2016, ensuring that his closest rival Ted Cruz took all the heat, although the Texas senator went on to win the Iowa vote days later.
The DeSantis team is expecting a similar dynamic on Wednesday, although US media reported that political newcomer Ramaswamy is also likely to be attacked over inconsistencies in his policy statements.
Trump won’t have it all his own way, though, with distant underdogs Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson both hoping for a breakout moment skewering the former president and his former vice president Mike Pence unlikely to pull his punches.
Christie is also expected to go after DeSantis over his awkwardness on the campaign trail and a memo posted online by the leading political organization supporting his campaign, urging him to defend Trump.
“I think it’s fair when these other candidates say it’s not a coronation, it’s an election,” debate co-moderator Bret Baier said in an interview this week with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Originally published as Absent Trump expected to steal show at Republican debate