Donald Trump won't be there, but he and rivals still face risks


WASHINGTON – Republican presidential candidates – most of them – gather this week for a first debate that will revolve around someone who probably won’t be there: Donald Trump.

The GOP frontrunner’s absence from the stage in Milwaukee creates a new layer of challenges for other Republican candidates who see this opening debate as a chance to emerge as the main alternative to the ex-president.

The debate also exposes all of the GOP presidential candidates to potential problems.

Donald Trump and Republican rivals

Donald Trump and Republican rivals

“They’ve got to look and act like somebody who could be president of the United States,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres – and most of them need to demonstrate that they have the ability to defeat Trump.

“He’s going to be at the center of the debate whether he’s there or not,” Ayres said.

Candidates who qualified for the debate stage so far include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former New Jersey Gov Chris Christie.

They all have plans and possible pitfalls, even the non-debating Trump:

Donald Trump: The man who won’t be there

Former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he enters the Erie Insurance Arena for a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he enters the Erie Insurance Arena for a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Plan: The former president is gambling that his absence will drain attention – and television viewers – from the other candidates, rendering their debate a nullity. He is discussing the possibility of counter-programming the debate by holding an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Pitfall: The other candidates get free shots at Trump, who faces four criminal trials and other legal proceedings that will distract him throughout the 2024 campaign. Don’t forget: During the 2016 campaign, Trump skipped a debate in Iowa – and lost that year’s caucuses to Ted Cruz.

Ron DeSantis: Stay in second place

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Plan: Use the debate to promote his record in Florida and re-establish himself as Trump’s main competitor.

In recent months, DeSantis has seen his percentage of the Republican vote fall from the mid-to-low 20s to below 15%, according to the average of recent polls compiled by the Real Clear Politics website. DeSantis has slipped to third place in some individual polls, a development that Trump and his allies have harped upon.

Pitfall: DeSantis is not considered a good debater. A poor performance in the spotlight on Wednesday would open the door for one of others to emerge as Trump’s top challenger.

“This strikes me as very make-or-break for DeSantis,” said Republican political consultant Liz Mair. “He has no real room for error.”

DeSantis allies said they fully expect the Florida governor to be the most attacked candidate during Wednesday’s debate, just as he has been Trump’s main target throughout the campaign.

“Every candidate on and off the debate stage will have their knives out for Ron DeSantis because they know this is a two-man race,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said. “If DeSantis wasn’t the best candidate to beat Joe Biden, Donald Trump wouldn’t have spent over $20 million attacking him.”

Mike Pence: Pick up ground on Trump – and DeSantis

Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence

Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence

Plan: The former vice president, touting his experience with the “Trump-Pence administration,” is one of the many candidates hoping to use the debate to move up against Trump – and DeSantis.

Pitfall: Pence is unable to break through the enmity of Trump supporters who still attack him for refusing the former president’s demand to overturn the 2020 election, for which Trump is facing criminal trials in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

“I always stood loyally by Donald Trump until my oath to the Constitution required me to do otherwise,” Pence said Friday during a candidate forum in Georgia. “But my differences with the president go far beyond that fateful day … And I hope to have a chance to debate them with him.”.

Vivek Ramaswamy: Introducing himself

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy

Plan: Ramaswamy and supporters see him as the hot new thing in Republican politics, an outsider businessman who wants to shake up the system; they hope the debate can further that image and elevate him to second place behind Trump.

In a statement on the debate, the Ramaswamy campaign said that “Vivek’s job on Aug 23 is to introduce himself and his vision to the American people.”

Pitfall: The 38-year-old is new to prime time, and may face first-time attacks during the debate. DeSantis allies have urged him to challenge Ramaswamy over his lack of experience.

Nikki Haley: Hang on until South Carolina

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley

Plan: Haley hopes to elevate herself in the polls by stressing her experience in domestic and foreign policy affairs, as a former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The only woman in the race is looking to keep her head above water in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in January, and play for the late February primary in her home state of South Carolina.

In a recent interview on Fox News, Haley said the debate will “jump start” the presidential race.

“It’s a good opportunity for the American people to see what their options are,” Haley said. “And it’s the start of the season.”

Pitfall: No breakout, and Haley stays mired in the low single digits.

Tim Scott: Also hang on until South Carolina

Republican presidential candidate Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Republican presidential candidate Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C.

Plan: Scott, the other South Carolinian in the Republican presidential race, is well liked by many segments of the Republican Party. He, like Haley, is expected to promote himself as part of a new generation of GOP leadership.

The only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate, Scott is also considered a running mate possibility for Trump or whoever else can capture the GOP presidential nomination.

Pitfall: Scott is seen more as a potential vice president than a president.

Again, like Haley, Scott also needs to do reasonably well in Iowa and New Hampshire in order to get to the South Carolina primary.

Chris Christie: Trump should be nervous

Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie

Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie

Plan: Some memorable Jersey-style wisecracks during the debate about Trump’s failings that resonate for months. The former New Jersey governor has made attacking Trump the focus of his campaign that is based mostly in New Hampshire.

Christie is also the candidate who has made the most noise about Trump’s likely absence.

“If I had his record, I’d be nervous about showing up, too,” Christie told reporters after his appearance at the Republican conference in Atlanta.

Pitfall: Republicans continue to rally around Trump over his four indictments, believing that opponents are using the legal system to attack him and the Trump movement politically.

Doug Burgum: Getting to know you

Republican presidential candidate Doug Burgum

Republican presidential candidate Doug Burgum

Plan: The North Dakota governor, whose campaign offered donors $20 gift cards for $1 donations, sees the debate as a chance to promote his economic and energy agenda – and to build name recognition.

Pitfall: Voters will continue to say, “Doug Who?”

The other candidates

The Republican National Committee is expected to announce Monday the full line-up of candidates who have qualified for the debate, based on donor numbers and poll results.

Lesser known Republican candidates are eager to hit the stage and try to boost name recognition.

Perry Johnson: The Michigan businessman claims he has qualified for debates because of recent polls that put him at 1% or more. Pitfall: “Perry who?”

Republican presidential candidate businessman Perry Johnson speaks to guests at Ashley's BBQ Bash hosted by Congresswoman Ashley Hinson (R-IA) on August 06, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Republican presidential candidate businessman Perry Johnson speaks to guests at Ashley’s BBQ Bash hosted by Congresswoman Ashley Hinson (R-IA) on August 06, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Asa Hutchinson: The former Arkansas governor is struggling to get enough donors to qualify for the debate. The former federal prosecutor has been among the most critical Republicans and would like use the debate to call for Trump’s withdrawal from the race.

Republican presidential candidate former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republican presidential candidate former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Will Hurd: Like Christie and Hutchinson, the former congressman from Texas has attacked Trump over his legal problems and said he is running for president again simply in order to “stay out of prison.”

Former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, addresses the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition on April 22, 2023, in Clive, Iowa. Hurd, also a former CIA officer, entered the Republican presidential race two months later.

Former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, addresses the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition on April 22, 2023, in Clive, Iowa. Hurd, also a former CIA officer, entered the Republican presidential race two months later.

Francis Suarez. The mayor of Miami says he has enough donors to qualify for the debate, which he wants to devote to his own campaign.

Republican presidential candidate Miami Mayor Francis Suarez speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, March 3, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md.

Republican presidential candidate Miami Mayor Francis Suarez speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, March 3, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md.

“From my perspective, I want to spend as little amount of time talking about the former president” as possible, he told the Associated Press. “He’s capable of handling himself, defending himself.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP Debate: Donald Trump is absent, but he and rivals still face risks



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