(NEW YORK) — Former President Donald Trump is snubbing the Republican National Committee and Fox News by counterprogramming the first GOP primary debate with an interview with Tucker Carlson — but in a primary characterized by his consistent polling dominance, it’s unclear if his absence will hurt him in any way.
Trump has cited his indisputable frontrunner status — despite facing 91 criminal charges — to suggest that he doesn’t need to give his rivals a platform to attack him. On stage will be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
Yet, without the de facto GOP leader on stage, strategists are wondering how much the debate can shake up the race.
“For the trajectory of the entire primary, I don’t think it matters that he’s not there. I mean, probably no one remembers this debate after the next debate,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, a presidential campaign veteran.
“But I also don’t subscribe to this theory that the way to move up in the field right now is to demonstrate you can take on Trump. I think this is all about who’s going to be the alternative. It’s kind of the primary within the primary, and that’s what will be on stage [Wednesday] night.”
Trump teased for months whether or not he’d join his rivals on stage in Milwaukee, only to reveal last week on his social media platform that he would “NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”
Rivals pounced on the announcement, suggesting Trump was shortchanging voters by not appearing at one of the few events where all the major candidates could be heard at once.
“If you’re not willing to do that, then I think people are not going to look kindly on that,” DeSantis said Friday.
“Surprise, surprise … the guy who is out on bail from four jurisdictions and can’t defend his reprehensible conduct, is running scared and hiding from the debate stage,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie added on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Trump – certified loser, verified coward.”
In a twist, Fox News anchor Brett Baier, who’s co-moderating the debate, told Politico Trump will be a presence regardless — maybe on video.
“If he’s not there, he’ll still be there. In other words, he’ll be a part of questioning. There may be sound bites, there may be elements where ‘this is what the leader of the primary says about this issue.’ He’ll be there, even if he’s not there,” Baier said.
It’s unclear precisely how many debates Trump plans on sitting out, but strategists predicted he also won’t attend the second debate hosted next month at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library by Fox Business, two entities that have found themselves in the former president’s crosshairs.
But a prolonged absence from the debate stage would be out of character for Trump, who has long been known for his hunger for the spotlight.
“I’m confident he won’t do the second debate because he hates the Reagan Library people and he’s been on a war with them for years,” said GOP strategist Bob Heckman. “My feeling is that at some point, Trump says, ‘Okay, I’ve got to be the guy in the middle, the guy with the middle podium. I’ve let these guys have enough airtime. I’ve got to be the guy on there.'”
Still, Trump’s absence doesn’t change the fact that he’s polling lightyears ahead of his rivals and maintains and ironclad grip on a swath of the GOP grassroots — likely forcing candidates on stage to respond to him in absentia and explain why they think they have a path to the nomination.
“I think the focal point of Wednesday night’s debate is going to be Donald Trump. And I don’t think he loses anything by not being there because it’s going to be all anybody talks about anyway. And the analysis afterwards is going to be who was willing to take on Trump and who defended Trump and what did Trump say on Truth Social,” Heckman, himself a veteran of the campaign trail, said.
“In terms of Trump’s desire to be at the center of the storm, which he always wants to be, I think he’ll accomplish that Wednesday by not being there,” Heckman added. “I also think that it’s going to be harder for anyone to gain traction until Trump is actually in a debate.”
That doesn’t mean the debate will be without fireworks.
DeSantis, the top polling Republican on stage Wednesday night, was long viewed as Trump’s most formidable primary rival. However, he’s been hit with months of negative headlines over his financing, a campaign reset and, most recently, a publicized memo from a supportive super PAC laying out specific talking points for the debate.
Since then, the race to be the alternative candidate to Trump has morphed into more of a free-for-all, setting up attacks Wednesday — especially on DeSantis.
“Either knock each other down or outshine each other,” Stutzman said when asked how the Republicans would attack each other. “It’s a little complicated, I think, for any of them that start going after each other negatively, but they really got to start demonstrating that they have what it takes to frankly win Iowa. That’s going to be how this winnows itself.”
“I think if anyone becomes the focus of direct criticism, it’s likely to be DeSantis. It’s blood in the water. If he’s driven out of the race before Iowa, it shuffles the cards in all the early states, and it puts a bunch of donors into the free agent market. So, if he’s in a tailspin, there’s a lot of incentive to kind of make sure that he doesn’t pull out of that tailspin and this thing crashes.”
Many of the attacks are expected to come from Christie, who strategists predicted would both hammer Trump and seek to tie other candidates to him for what he views as insufficient criticism of the former president.
DeSantis has spent the runup to the debate projecting confidence regardless of Trump’s attendance, saying last week that “we’re prepared either way,” and strategists suggested a strong performance by the Florida governor could halt negative headlines and help consolidate the race into a two-man contest.
But short of a standout moment from DeSantis, it’s still unclear if Wednesday’s brawl will move the needle.
“Good lord, you get indicted four times and your numbers go up each time. You’re 40 points ahead of the next challenger, and the next challenger appears to be tanking, appears to be dropping rather than rising,” Heckman said of Trump.
“I wonder how much the real fight gets delayed because Trump is not in, and I think the only way we’re going to know is what the reaction is after Wednesday,” he said. “Do you have real poll movement for any candidate who does well, or does it continue to be frozen simply because Trump was not there?”
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