Eight candidates will take the stage this week in the battlefield state of Wisconsin for the first GOP primary debate of the 2024 presidential cycle.
Not one of them is named Donald Trump, the indicted former president led the race by a mile. He plans to skip the Milwaukee event – as well as all future debates – that will rob his rivals of the opportunity to confront him in person on Wednesday.
That means both candidates and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy the six others who met the Republican National Committee debate criteria, could have an escape moment that has nothing to do with Trump. But without him, it all feels a bit like a consolation contest, with candidates competing over a huge field and no real way to get there.
“Everyone is still trying to make a horse race out of horse manure,” said Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said in a Monday video. “The fact that Donald Trump will not be on that podium just means that this debate means nothing to anyone. It is noise and fury, which mean nothing.”
Also participating in this week’s primetime event hosted by Fox News: Former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott (RS.C.), Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.
Trump seemingly hopes to divert attention from the debate by sitting down for an interview with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which will simultaneously air Wednesday on the social media network formerly known as Twitter. He’s also about to turn himself in to Georgia’s Fulton County Jail on Thursday for the criminal charges he faces there, making him all but certain that the media will fixate on him instead of showing clips of his rivals from to send.
Only in the current Republican Party is being arrested for stepping on your opponents’ reporting considered a smart political move.
A few GOP candidates have reviewed their debate strategies, but with the exception of Trump antagonist Christie, these don’t involve attacking the race front runner. Advisors affiliated with Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC that is legally prohibited from working with the candidate, posted online debate tips last week, suggesting that DeSantis goes after Ramaswamy instead of Trump.
Haley, who also served as the governor of South Carolina in the past, has similarly predicted possible attacks on Ramaswamy. The biotech millionaire is the only GOP hopeful — besides Trump, of course — to appear to be winning in polls, making the political newcomer an easy target. Ramaswamy is coming off a tough week in which he had to defend commentary on 9/11 and the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol — notes that his rivals are likely to appear on the podium.
While many of the candidates are expected to focus on bashing President Joe Biden, there is little daylight among Republicans on policy — except on aid to Ukraine. DeSantis and Ramaswamy have sided with Trump in questioning US support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression. Pence, Haley and the others support continued aid to Ukraine, bringing them closer to traditional GOP orthodoxy.
Four backbencher candidates failed to make it to the debate: former Texas Representative Will Hurd, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, conservative radio host Larry Elder and businessman Perry Johnson. Elder has threatened to sue the Republican National Committee — which set the polling and donor requirements to appear on stage — and Hurd has complained about the process.
“The lack of transparency and confusion surrounding the RNC’s debate requirements is contrary to the democratic process,” Hurd said in a statement Tuesday. “The American people deserve better.”
No word yet from Suarez, who earlier said that candidates who fail the debate should drop out of the race.