What to watch for during the first Republican presidential primary debate

MILWAUKEE — Eight Republican presidential candidates not named Donald Trump will compete here Wednesday night in the highly anticipated first debate of the primary season.

The former president and current GOP front-runner for the 2024 nomination plans to skip the event and counterprogram it from the safety and comfort of a pre-taped interview with right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson. 

But Trump will very much be present in spirit.

His criminal indictments, including charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in his favor, have been a specter in the race. And questions about Trump’s character and fitness for office have bedeviled his rivals, all of whom were required to pledge loyalty to their party’s eventual nominee in exchange for a spot on the stage. (Trump himself has not signed the pledge.)

How Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum handle the absent Trump will be one of several storylines to monitor. But with few exceptions, the GOP contenders have shown little appetite for taking him on directly.

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

Among the other storylines to watch for Wednesday night:

How do the candidates handle an absent Trump?

Christie and Hutchinson have been the most vocal against Trump, but both are polling in the single digits. 

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

Second-tier candidates like DeSantis and Ramaswamy, for example, have said vaguely that they would have behaved differently on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump’s efforts to block certification of President Joe Biden’s victory culminated with a deadly riot at the Capitol. And Pence, who as vice president ignored Trump’s pleas to intervene, has been explicit in saying Trump was wrong. 

It’s not hard to imagine a question similar to what candidates have been asked in recent weeks on the campaign trail: What would you have done had you been vice president on Jan. 6? And tiptoeing around the question could play a lot differently with a TV audience of millions than with a gaggle of reporters between the pork chops and deep-fried Oreos at the Iowa State Fair.

Memo to DeSantis: Don’t get beat up

With Trump refusing to attend the first debate, DeSantis will find himself not only at the center of the stage but, as a number of strategists and his own allies have suggested, the subject of many of the incoming attacks from rivals seeking to leapfrog him.

A memo written by new DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier said the campaign is “fully prepared” for the attacks, adding that the debate is the “biggest chance yet” for his rivals “to grab headlines by attacking the governor, so we know they will try their best.”

DeSantis’ night will be determined by whether he’s able to withstand the onslaught, return fire of his own and convince enough primary voters that he remains the most viable Trump alternative despite his stumbles out of the gate. Unfortunately for the Florida governor, an earlier memo posted by a super PAC backing his bid revealed an outline of the strategy that his allies want him to pursue, making it all the more difficult to actually pursue it onstage, given that his rivals and the news media would be able to brand him a follower rather than a leader.

The goals set forth in that memo for DeSantis included attacking Ramaswamy and defending Trump against attacks from Christie. Both candidates afterward mocked DeSantis, who told reporters last week that he had not read the memo. It’s also worth noting that the last time a presidential candidate from Florida used canned lines on a debate stage with Christie, it did not go well.

“A Florida politician showing he can memorize lines from his consultants… what could possibly go wrong?” Christie posted Monday on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

Speaking of which …

Does Christie find a new target?

Christie’s slashing attack on overly rehearsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida ahead of the New Hampshire primary in 2016 endures as one of the most vicious and potentially consequential debate moments in recent cycles. Ascendant after a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, Rubio sputtered to a distant fifth-place finish. And Christie was right behind him in sixth place.

This time, Christie’s main focus is Trump, who won’t be onstage to defend himself. That will offer Christie a chance to reinforce his Trump criticism while also punching up at the GOP contenders who stand between him and the former president in the polls. The second-place DeSantis would make sense as a target, as would Ramaswamy or Scott.

Does Vivek handle the heat?

In a field featuring governors, current and former members of Congress, and even the previous vice president, few expected Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old businessman and self-described “anti-woke” crusader, to catch fire.

And yet, here we are: Polls show Ramaswamy as high as second place nationally in the primary field. He’s one of the only candidates who has seen poll growth since the start of the campaign, though his early state numbers are not quite as good as his national results.

But that rise will be put to the test Wednesday. DeSantis allies and Haley herself have signaled that Ramaswamy will face some staunch criticism onstage for positions past and present. Meanwhile, it’s an open question how Ramaswamy will perform in a national debate setting as, unlike many of his rivals onstage, he’s never before participated in one.

He doesn’t seem to be sweating it, though. At least, not sweating the debate.

Who wins the battle of South Carolinians?

Since the dawn of their presidential campaigns, Haley and Scott have been, fairly or unfairly, contrasted against one another. Both are candidates from minority backgrounds who hail from the same early primary state and made waves as young(er) conservative leaders in their party.

Will either of them have a breakthrough? Neither candidate has seen much traction in the polls so far, though Scott has had some encouraging early state results while both maintain a respectable base in their home state.

A win for one could mean a significant dip for the other. And we don’t have a sense yet whether the two will take aim at each other onstage.

Can a long-shot steal the show?

Polling and donor thresholds didn’t keep largely unknown candidates from qualifying. Burgum tapped into his personal wealth to air ads and offer gift cards to small-dollar donors. Hutchinson, leaning into his anti-Trump message, used invitations to appear on TV news programs to meet the unique donor mark days ahead of the RNC’s deadline. 

Really all of the candidates not named Trump are long-shots at this point. But qualifying for the second debate will be especially tough for the lowest-tier contenders. The 1% showings that helped punch Hutchinson’s ticket to Milwaukee, for example, won’t be enough to get him onstage at next month’s debate in California. The pressure will be on these candidates to have a breakout moment that can help boost 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 narrative as a no-nonsense software-entrepreneur-turned-governor. Can he make the most of this prime-time opportunity to capitalize? Or will he remain in the background?

source: nbcnews.com