By Nathan Layne
(Reuters) – Eight Republican presidential candidates will duel in the party’s first debate on the 2024 race in hopes of becoming a viable alternative to front-runner Donald Trump, who is expected to cast a long shadow over an event he is planning to skip .
With a commanding lead in the Republican nomination race to take on Democratic President Joe Biden, Trump this week said he would not attend the debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Instead, he took part in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that will air the same day, potentially siphoning debate viewers.
In Trump’s absence, the candidates are expected to launch a slew of attacks on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as competitors try to displace him as Trump’s top challenger, strategists and rival campaign aides said. DeSantis is seen as vulnerable after a drop in polls over the summer that left him more than 30 points behind Trump in the race.
“He’s going to be a punching bag,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former senior aide to U.S. Senator Rand Paul. “DeSantis is considered a wounded candidate going the wrong way.”
Still, Trump’s no-show doesn’t mean he won’t have a major presence in the debate, which kicks off at 9pm ET (1am GMT on Thursday) on the Fiserv Forum.
Martha MacCallum, a Fox News host who will moderate the debate with colleague Bret Baier, indicated in an interview with Vanity Fair last week that they will be pressuring the candidates to address Trump’s four criminal charges.
The event will take place a day before Trump plans to surrender in Atlanta in connection with his Georgia indictment on charges that he sought to undo his 2020 election loss in the state.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former close Trump adviser turned outspoken critic, is likely to use the debate to bolster his aggressive attacks on the former president. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and former Vice President Mike Pence, who broke with his former boss after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, may also shoot Trump.
But Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican political consultant, said the other candidates will likely refrain from criticizing Trump for fear of upsetting his base of supporters, whose votes they will need to clinch the Republican nomination. Polls show that most Republicans view the criminal charges against Trump as politically motivated, making the topic difficult for his rivals to handle.
“He’s still in the room because every Republican primary nominee is going to have to take a stand on the former president and his legal issues,” Hoffman said. “It’s a bit of a catch-22 for some candidates. They don’t want Trump to be the nominee, but they can’t be the one to take him out either.”
IS THERE A BREAKOUT MOMENT?
The eight participants include US Senator Tim Scott, technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, in addition to DeSantis, Christie, Hutchinson and Pence.
In the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month, Trump had 47% of the Republican vote nationwide, while DeSantis fell six percentage points to 13% from July. None of the other candidates got out of single digits.
Both Darling and Hoffman said they saw the potential for Ramaswamy, an accomplished orator who has risen to third place in several national polls, to gain ground following the debate. Ramaswamy’s policy views are mostly very conservative and he has been a staunch supporter of Trump.
The DeSantis campaign expects particularly harsh criticism from Ramaswamy and Christie, a person close to the governor said. The governor’s aides and allies see the debate as a potentially pivotal moment that could help him revive his campaign.
Like other candidates, DeSantis needs to brand himself “as a good, solid alternative to Trump,” said Christopher Wlezien, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the electoral impact of debates.
Wlezien said he was skeptical that a contestant would reach a breakaway point on Wednesday. Trump has a huge lead in the polls and will not take the stage to launch any attack.
“My expectations were low about big changes in the beginning, and that is even more so because Trump is not here,” he said.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne, additional reporting by Gram Slattery, editing by Ross Colvin and Deepa Babington)