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6 things to watch for in the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate

KIFI

By Eric Bradner, CNN

(CNN) — With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate, eight of his GOP rivals will vie to emerge as the party’s top alternative to the former president in their first on-stage showdown Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

The two-hour debate is set to start at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It is hosted by Fox News Channel, with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderating.

CNN will cover the debate at cnn.com, including live updates, analysis and fact checks.

Eight candidates will be on stage: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Here are six things to watch in Wednesday night’s debate:

Can DeSantis withstand the bright lights?

With Trump skipping Wednesday night’s debate, DeSantis – who has polled in second place nationally and in early-voting states among likely Republican primary voters all year – might wear the biggest target on the stage in Milwaukee.

After all, Trump remains broadly popular with Republican voters, which means attacking the former president could alienate broad swaths of the primary electorate. Instead, in something of a replay of the 2016 primary, many GOP contenders appear focused on first positioning themselves as the field’s most viable Trump alternative – a status DeSantis now occupies.

After a 19-point reelection victory last year, DeSantis entered the GOP race to sky-high expectations. But he has not yet lived up to that promise, stalling out in the polls while downsizing and reshuffling his campaign staff.

A strong performance Wednesday night could steady the Florida governor’s ship.

But he already endured an embarrassing lead-up to the debate, when his super PAC – one he has unusually close ties to after outsourcing a number of functions typically handled by a candidate’s own campaign – in a memo advised him to “hammer” Ramaswamy and defend Trump if the absent former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from that memo.

“That’s a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not something that I’ve read, and it’s not, not reflective of my strategy,” DeSantis said Monday.

To Trump or not to Trump? That is the question.

The former president’s absence from the stage offers his Republican rivals an opportunity to introduce themselves and talk about their own ideas for the future on the biggest night so far in the 2024 campaign.

At least that’s the advice from Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who shared a debate stage with Trump during the 2016 cycle before bowing out of the race.

“The only person who changes your opinion about Donald Trump is Donald Trump – not any of the candidates,” Walker told CNN, sharing a bit of advice he has given to some of the contenders. “If they waste time attacking him, they’re doing just that, they’re wasting their time. But if they come out and have a breakthrough moment and have passion, credibility and a bold agenda, it gets people worked up and creates a buzz.”

He added: “I’m not saying it will happen, but at least it gives them a fighting chance.”

The degree to which the debate still revolves around Trump – despite his decision to skip Milwaukee – also rests in the hands of the debate moderators. They have signaled their plans to try to highlight contrasts between the Republican candidates, including Trump.

While Walker believes at least half of Republican voters are eager to turn the page, they have little appetite for attacking Trump. “It’s like attacking a member of your own family,” he said.

The Trump critics’ role without Trump

While others might relish a debate without Trump, at least three of the eight candidates on stage Wednesday – Pence, Christie and Hutchinson – have placed their criticism of the former president at the center of their campaigns.

Denied an opportunity to confront Trump directly, their strategies are major question marks.

Pence has staked out a lane of his own as a devoted ideological conservative, and has pressed his rivals to take clearer positions in support of federal abortion restrictions – a position those cognizant of potential backlash in a general election could be hesitant to take.

The former vice president’s own actions on January 6, 2021, could also provide fodder for the Fox News moderators’ questions.

Christie is perhaps the biggest wild card. He’ll be the only candidate on stage Wednesday night who has participated in presidential primary debates before, and has a history of getting the better of his rivals – ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

A South Carolina standout?

Scott and Haley, the two contenders from South Carolina, are both searching for their breakout moments.

Scott is a prolific fundraiser with an experienced campaign team. He’s been in big moments before, delivering the 2021 GOP response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union. And as the Senate’s only Black Republican, he could help the party expand its growing coalition of non-White conservatives.

However, he is also a happy warrior, offering the kind of optimistic message that can sometimes get lost on debate stages.

Haley also offers the GOP diverse new leadership, but her campaign appears to believe her path to higher poll numbers runs through Ramaswamy, who has risen in the ranks in recent weeks.

Haley on Monday unloaded on the entrepreneur and political newcomer, saying he’s “completely wrong” for his call to reduce US military aid to Israel.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, tweeted videos of himself practicing tennis and working out this week, describing those workouts as his debate prep.

Are breakout moments even possible?

Trump is skipping the debate, but he isn’t ceding the spotlight. He sat for a pre-recorded interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that’s expected to be released around the time of the debate. The interview will be released on X, formerly known as Twitter, as counter programming to the debate, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

Then, on Thursday, the focus will shift back to Trump as he turns himself in at the Fulton County jail, the fourth such spectacle in recent months.

Trump’s campaign also sought to saturate the airwaves with his aides and allies before and after the debate. However, Fox News informed the Trump campaign on Monday that they will no longer provide credentials to some surrogates of the former president to attend the spin room at the debate since the former president is not participating in the debate.

Trump, who will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, could also lob his own verbal grenades from the sidelines. He said on his social media network Truth Social on Tuesday: “I WILL BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW NIGHT – ENJOY!!!”

Without the front-runner on stage, it’s not clear whether breakout moments will even be possible. And if those moments do occur, the cloud Trump casts over the 2024 GOP race raises questions about whether any of his rivals could ride a strong performance Wednesday night into lasting momentum.

Will anyone have an ‘oops’ moment?

While the front-runners have survived primary debates in recent presidential election cycles, those vying to emerge as their party’s top alternative have seen their chances effectively dashed with poor debate performances.

In the 2012 Republican race, it was then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, when he famously forgot the name of the federal department he wanted to eliminate.

In 2016, Christie halted Rubio’s momentum when he mocked his “memorized, 25-second speech” about Barack Obama. “There it is, everybody,” Christie said when Rubio repeated effectively the same line.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ended former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hopes within the span of one minute, delivering a withering critique that culminated in telling the audience that nominating Bloomberg to take on Trump would be substituting “one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Already, some 2024 Republican contenders are telegraphing potential debate-stage attacks on rivals. Christie has knocked DeSantis in recent days. Haley released a statement Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.

Whether any candidate faces the sorts of unrelenting attacks that have waylaid presidential hopefuls of cycles past – and how they respond to those attacks – could alter the trajectory of the GOP race.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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