MILWAUKEE — They are all trailing in the polls, to varying degrees. The front-runner will not even be there. And most of them would be loath to attack him anyway.
So what is the goal for the eight candidates who will be taking the stage for the first Republican debate of the 2024 campaign on Wednesday?
“Survival,” said David Urban, a Republican strategist who has long advised former president Donald Trump but isn’t working on his campaign.
The first big televised clash of the GOP primary, which is set to begin in Milwaukee at 9 p.m. Eastern time, would normally be a marquee event that could mint new political stars and reshape the contours of the presidential race. But in a race defined so far by Trump, who has said he is skipping the event because of his enormous polling lead, this debate may be less about being deemed the “winner” than it is about simply staying in the hunt as voters narrow their choices.
“It’s a really long race,” Urban added. “I think that fund-raising is going to dry up for a lot of them if they don’t start performing, showing some movement.”
It could all make for a strange scene in Milwaukee, as the assembled candidates compete to shine on a Trumpless stage in what might feel like a suspended reality. But it is also a dream scenario for Republicans who are ready for their party to move on.
“They have to separate and differentiate themselves with their personalities, and be bold,” said Governor Chris Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican. “They have to remind folks that we can all say ‘thank you’ to former president Trump, but it’s an absolute losing cause.”
The highest-polling candidate at the Milwaukee debate, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, is trying desperately to steady his campaign after it has underperformed, overspent, and undergone multiple staff shakeups only a few months out of the gate.
Lower-polling candidates, including former vice president Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, are looking for a breakout moment that will help persuade Republican voters to look at them as viable alternatives to Trump or DeSantis.
But the candidates’ relationship to Trump, who lost their party the presidency in 2020, tried to overturn the election, and now faces four separate criminal indictments, has been defined mostly by an unwillingness to attack him over the course of the campaign. And that is not expected to change significantly at the debate when the candidates try to take advantage of the spotlight.
“The more they say Trump’s name, the more they’re losing,” Sununu said. “You’re kind of acknowledging him as the elephant in the room.”
“If your argument is, ‘The other person is worse,’ that’s not an argument for you,” said David Winston, a GOP pollster who worked with Newt Gingrich when he parlayed strong debate performances into a polling lead — albeit a short-lived one — during the 2012 Republican primary.
Trump, Winston said, handed his rivals an opportunity by deciding not to show up.
“People pay attention to debates, and it’s a real opportunity for them to say what they want to say, in their own words, without them being interpreted by others. He just gave them all the more time to be able to do that,” Winston said.
Trump, of course, isn’t exactly taking the night off. Instead of attending the debate, he opted for a taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson as counterprogramming as his rivals spar. And perhaps just in case one of the candidates does rise to the occasion on Wednesday night, Trump announced Monday on his social media site that he would turn himself in to the Fulton County jail in Georgia on Thursday — a move that will almost certainly diminish any positive buzz from Wednesday night’s contest.
Some Republicans are still hoping they can sharpen their practical case against the former president — although they are not optimistic that will happen.
“The best pitches these candidates have is about electability,” said Gunner Ramer, the political director of a group called the Republican Accountability Project, “but they are afraid of alienating the Trump bloc.”
The candidates onstage who have staked their campaigns in opposition to Trump are among the lowest-polling. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who lost to Trump in the 2016 primary and launched a long-shot presidential bid this year in large part because he wanted to debate Trump, has yet to catch fire with voters.
“Chris Christie’s gone out of his way to go after Trump for all these things,” said Ramer, who said he finds that mission admirable, “but it just doesn’t play with the base.”
And former governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who frequently says Trump is unfit for office, barely even made the debate stage, announcing he had qualified just days ago, on Sunday.
To make the debate, candidates had to get at least 40,000 individual donors representing a broad spread of states, and hit 1 percent in a certain number of national or state polls. They also had to sign a pledge of loyalty to back the eventual nominee. Some turned to gimmicks to meet the donor threshold, such as the deep-pocketed Governor Doug Burgum of North Dakota, who offered gift cards in exchange for donations.
Those left in the cold included former representative Will Hurd of Texas, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, businessman Perry Johnson, and conservative radio host Larry Elder. Johnson and Elder said they planned to sue the Republican National Committee over the exclusion.
Also onstage will be the tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who has steadily built his support by embracing Trump, rather than opposing him.
A trove of documents posted online by a political strategy firm associated with a DeSantis-supporting super PAC, Never Back Down, suggested that it is Ramaswamy, not Trump, who will be the main target of DeSantis’ attacks. Those documents, which were first reported by The New York Times, urged DeSantis to defend Trump while depicting Ramaswamy as inauthentic. That may be an admission from the Florida governor’s supporters that Ramaswamy presents the biggest threat to DeSantis’ attempts to run to Trump’s right.
On Monday, however, the Florida governor did attempt to impugn Trump for refusing to show up, previewing a possible line of attack — albeit one that was wrapped around a compliment.
“I think he’s had some great opportunity to come out and do this. I think he owes it to people. I don’t think our voters, even people that appreciate what he did — and I’m actually one that appreciated a lot of what he did, too — I don’t think they’re going to look kindly on somebody that thinks they don’t have to earn it,” DeSantis said on Fox.