Things to watch at the first GOP primary debate

The majority of the 2024 GOP presidential contenders will descend on Milwaukee on Wednesday for the primary’s first debate of the cycle.

Wednesday’s televised event on Fox News will mark the first time most of the candidates have been onstage at the same time and could be their biggest national audience in the cycle so far. 

But arguably the biggest story heading into the debate is former President Trump’s absence. 

Here are five things to watch ahead of Wednesday’s GOP debate. 

What will candidates say about Trump? 

Trump’s absence will loom large over the event, given his commanding lead in polling and his status as a former president. His grip on the GOP primary base has forced many of the candidates to walk a fine line between differentiating themselves from the former president and criticizing him.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was once one of Trump’s most vocal allies, could be in the most difficult position of all of the candidates. DeSantis needs to peel off some of Trump’s supporters while not alienating them by criticizing the former president too heavily. A leaked memo from the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down appeared to offer a solution to this conundrum by encouraging DeSantis to defend Trump if former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attacks the former president. At the same time, that strategy could make DeSantis appear weak after facing a near-constant barrage of attacks from the former president.  

Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy, who will appear next to DeSantis in the center of the stage, could continue his approach of publicly cozying up to Trump. Ramaswamy has offered arguably the most vocal defense of Trump’s legal issues and even sued the Justice Department after the president was indicted in the federal Jan. 6 investigation. The strategy seems to be working for the entrepreneur-turned-politician, who has seen a steady rise in the polls.  

But not everyone will be as cautious about attacking Trump. Christie has made bashing the former president a hallmark of his campaign, and he could end up pulling this off well given his talent on the debate stage. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) has also been a critical voice of Trump on the campaign trail and will likely call for the GOP to move on from the former president.  

DeSantis, Ramaswamy and the other candidates will likely make a generational argument, seeking to contrast themselves with the 77-year-old Trump. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have also made this point on the campaign trail.  

While he has not gained a ton of traction in the polls, former Vice President Mike Pence has found himself in the spotlight amid Trump’s legal issues. He and his campaign worked to capitalize on his presence in the indictment against Trump in the federal Jan. 6 probe. The Pence campaign even sold merchandise that read “Too honest,” a nod to a quote from the indictment against Trump over his efforts to remain in power after losing the 2020 election, which included pressuring Pence to reject the results.

Can DeSantis improve the narrative around his campaign? 

The Florida governor faces the highest stakes at the debate stage given the expectations that were put on his presidential campaign going back to before he even announced he was running. Since launching in May, DeSantis’s campaign has gone through shake-ups and has seen little to no growth in the polls. The campaign has been dogged by headlines about staff layoffs, a campaign manager shake-up and questions about DeSantis’s quality as a candidate. That’s a far cry from the largely positive coverage he received just over a year ago after Florida saw the only major red wave in the midterms under his leadership.  

While DeSantis’s campaign denied having any knowledge of the leaked memo from Never Back Down last week, its contents did provide insight into what the governor’s allies think he should do on the stage. In addition to saying DeSantis should defend Trump in the face of any attacks from Christie, the document also called on him to go on the offensive against Ramaswamy by labeling him “Vivek the Fake” or “Fake Vivek.”

DeSantis will want to change the narrative surrounding the operation and put forth an image of freshness and strength. This will likely be no easy feat considering most of the candidates onstage are looking to dethrone the Florida governor from his second-place perch. The governor stands to face a barrage of attacks from a number of directions onstage. But this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Attacks from the other candidates onstage are an acknowledgment that despite his recent struggles on the campaign trail, his is still firmly in second place. And without Trump present, he will get to stand center stage.

Who will face the most attacks onstage? 

While DeSantis and Ramaswamy may be poised to attack each other, they will also have to defend themselves in the face of incoming fire from the rest of the field vying for their second- and third-place spots in the polls.  

DeSantis appears to be the most vulnerable to attacks due to his campaign struggles and the criticism he’s faced from Trump, but Ramaswamy has a number of vulnerabilities as well. This is the 38-year-old entrepreneur’s first foray into politics, which could easily call his experience into question. Haley already has telegraphed that Ramaswamy could be a target on the debate stage. On Monday, her campaign slammed Ramaswamy over his recent comments about reducing U.S. aid to Israel in the near future. The attack allowed Haley’s team to highlight her own foreign policy credentials. Ramaswamy could also be asked to address recent comments surrounding the government’s possible involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.  

Will any candidates have break-out moments? 

Wednesday’s debate presents a major opportunity for all candidates onstage, particularly for those that are lesser known or those who are not polling well. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who is not known by most voters nationally, could stand to benefit the most from the exposure on the stage. Hutchinson finds himself in a somewhat similar situation and needs a major moment for his candidacy to gain traction in the polls.  

The debate could also be an opportunity for candidates like Scott and Haley to contrast themselves not only with Trump but also with those onstage with them. Scott will be the only Black man onstage, while Haley will be the only woman. Both have the opportunity not only to present their happy-warrior personas but also to highlight the need for diversity within the GOP.

Will Trump overshadow the event? 

The debate is taking place one day before Trump is set to arrive in Fulton County to turn himself in for the case regarding his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia. A number of Trump associates have already turned themselves in, including former pro-Trump lawyer John Eastman and Scott Hall. 

The candidates onstage will likely have to address the next day’s arraignment and where they stand on Trump’s growing legal issues. The former president’s legal woes have dominated coverage surrounding the primary. The topic of his legal problems appears to be even more precarious due to his commanding lead in the polls. A former president has never been indicted in multiple cases while campaigning as the front-runner in the presidential race.

No doubt the unprecedented situation will be brought up onstage, and with reports of Trump taking part in counterprogramming during the event, he has an opportunity to walk away with the biggest headline of the night.  

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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