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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A stage of eight takes shape for a Trump-less first GOP debate

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a Republican presidential candidate, at Erick Erickson’s “The Gathering”, an exclusive conference bringing together presidential hopefuls and conservative thought leaders, in Atlanta, on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023.

By Shane Goldmacher and Lisa Lerer

Former President Donald Trump won’t be there. But eight other Republicans hoping to catch him are now set for the first debate of the 2024 presidential primary tonight in Milwaukee, the Republican National Committee announced Monday night.

Those eight include Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has been Trump’s leading rival in most polling, and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence. Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Trump ally turned antagonist, has secured a spot, as has another vocal Trump opponent, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas.

Two prominent South Carolina Republicans have also earned places onstage, Sen. Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador. They will be joined by political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota.

The candidates will give Republicans a diverse field attempting to take on President Joe Biden: six past or present governors, one Black candidate, two candidates born to Indian immigrants, one woman and one former vice president.

A handful of others had been on the bubble heading into Monday evening. The Republican National Committee had imposed a 9 p.m. deadline for candidates to accumulate at least 40,000 donors and hit 1% in a certain number of qualifying national and state polls.

But two officials familiar with the RNC’s decision said that three candidates all fell short: Perry Johnson, a businessman who previously tried to run for governor of Michigan; Francis X. Suarez, the mayor of Miami; and Larry Elder, a talk-show host who made a failed run for governor of California. Those three campaigns, already all long-shots, had claimed to have met the donor and polling threshold. But they now face an even more uncertain future.

Johnson, in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, said the debate process “has been corrupted” and that his campaign hit all the metrics and qualified for the debate. “We’ll be in Milwaukee Wednesday and will have more to say tomorrow,” he added.

The RNC had also required candidates to sign a pledge to support whomever the party nominates. At least one candidate has said publicly he would refuse to sign it: Will Hurd, a former congressman from Texas who has said he opposes Trump.

With Trump opting to skip the debate entirely and citing his significant lead in the polls, much of the attention is expected to fall on DeSantis, who has steadily polled in second place despite some early struggles.

The debate will be broadcast on Fox News at 9 p.m. Eastern time today, with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum serving as moderators.

Despite the candidates’ months of campaigning across the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina already, the debate represents the first moment that many voters will tune into the contest — or even learn about many of the candidates.

“Most of what you do in this process is filtered through media,” DeSantis said while campaigning in Georgia last week. “Seldom do you get the opportunity to speak directly to this many people.”

Yet, it remains unclear how much the debate will transform a race where Trump remains the prohibitive front-runner, leading the field by large double-digit margins. The hosts have said they plan to turn Trump into a presence, with quotes and clips from the former president, even though he will not be on the stage. Much of the race has revolved around Trump, with the candidates repeatedly questioned on his denial of the 2020 election results, his four indictments and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

The other candidates have prepared for weeks. DeSantis brought on a well-known debate coach, Pence has been holding practice sessions with mock lecterns in Indiana and Ramaswamy has been holding sessions with advisers on his private plane. (Ramaswamy also posted a shirtless video of himself smashing tennis balls Monday, calling it “three hours of solid debate prep.”) Only Christie and Pence have previously participated in presidential-level debates, giving those two an advantage over less-experienced rivals.

Some of those onstage are nationally known, including Pence, who participated in two vice-presidential debates that were widely watched. But for Burgum and others, the event will be their national introduction and a chance to sell their biographies or bona fides, such as Hutchinson, a former congressman who has emerged as one of the party’s most vocal Trump critics.

Breaking through the media attention surrounding the former president will require a viral moment — a surprise attack or notable defense — and the candidates have been reluctant to publicly signal their strategy. The release of memos from DeSantis’ super PAC last week was viewed as a significant tactical error that heightened the pressure on the Florida governor while limiting his avenues of attack.

Some of Trump’s rivals have mocked him for skipping the debate, with Christie calling him a “coward.” Those taunts were unsuccessful in luring Trump in, although Christie has signaled his eagerness to swing at him in absentia.

It is far from clear how much fire the rest of the field will focus on the missing front-runner, or whether they will skirmish among themselves in a bid to claim second place as his leading challenger.

DeSantis’ aides have said they expect him to bear the brunt of attacks tonight because he will be the leading candidate on the stage.

Scott and his allies have aired a heavy rotation of advertising in Iowa, and he has risen there to third place in some polling, including a Des Moines Register/NBC News survey this week. But those ads have not helped him catch DeSantis yet, let alone Trump.

Haley, a former governor of South Carolina before she served as ambassador under Trump, has sought to find middle ground, arguing that the party needs to move past the former president yet doing so without being overly critical of an administration in which she served.

Pence has searched for traction in a race where he has been typecast as a betrayer to Trump by some voters, for standing up to his bid to block certification of Biden’s victory. That confrontation has established Pence as a critical witness in one federal indictment against Trump.

Trump, of course, is not giving up the spotlight entirely. He has recorded an interview with Tucker Carlson, a former Fox News host, as counterprogramming to the network’s debate. And Monday, his lawyers agreed to a $200,000 bail before his expected surrender to authorities in Georgia this week after he was charged as part of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the election result there in 2020.

The criminal indictment was Trump’s fourth of the year, although the accumulation of charges has done little to slow or stop his consolidation of support in polls.

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