MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — The opening debate of the 2024 presidential primary season won’t have Donald Trump, but it won’t be lacking memorable moments.
Trump, who is sitting out this debate, will have his own thing going on: An interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson set to air Wednesday evening — at the same time the marquee debate is airing live on Fox News.
Yes, Trump and Carlson are more than likely sticking it to the cable news network that the former president has feuded with and that handed Carlson his pink slip. But strategists agree Trump, the far away front-runner in the crowded field of Republican Party nomination contenders, has little to gain from being on the debate stage. Trump has said as much.
“Why would I allow people at 1 or 2 percent and 0 percent to be hitting me with questions all night?” he said in an interview in June with Fox News anchor Bret Baier. Baier will join fellow anchor Martha McCallum in moderating the debate.
His absence, of course, doesn’t mean Trump’s presence won’t loom large on the Milwaukee debate stage.
“Donald Trump will be a part of this debate,” Baier said in an interview last week. “I mean, he’s leading in the polls by 10, 20, 30, 40 points, depending on the poll, depending on the state. And, obviously, his legal issues are affecting this race. All these candidates have been asked non-stop about what’s happening in courtrooms around the country. So he’ll be a part of this debate whether he’s there or not.”
Who’s on the Debate Stage?
The Republican National Committee whittled the number of presidential candidates appearing down to three. There will be no “kids table,” a second debate for lesser-known candidates, as there was in 2015.
Taking center stage, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Ohio biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, running second and third in the national primary polls, respectively.
Next to DeSantis will be former Vice President Mike Pence, with former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley positioned on the other side of Ramaswamy.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) will be in the five and six positions. And on the outer ring will stand former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and possibly North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
Burgum suffered an injury late Tuesday that landed him in emergency rom. As of press time, it is unclear if he will make it to the debate.
The RNC set stage placement of the eight candidates based on polling strength.
Those who didn’t make the cut aren’t happy.
Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, originally believed to have made the debate by virtue of fundraising and polling, blasted the RNC for excluding what he insists were qualifying polls that showed he had garnered enough support.
“The corrupt and rigged RNC debate process has been a train wreck from the beginning,” Johnson said in a statement. “Our campaign hit every metric put forward by the RNC and we have qualified for the debate.”
Not so, said the RNC.
Conservative talk show host Larry Elder, former U.S. Representative Will Hurd of Texas, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez also didn’t qualify. Elder and Johnson on Tuesday announced they are planning to file a lawsuit against the RNC.
“I said from the beginning that it appeared the rules of the game were rigged, little did we know just how rigged it is,” Elder posted on X, (formerly Twitter). “For some reason, the establishment leaders at the RNC are afraid of having my voice on the debate stage.”
To make the cut, candidates had to collect donations from at least 40,000 national contributors and place above 1 percent in three national polls or two national polls and a state poll.
On the Attack?
While many of the candidates have eschewed attacking the former president, some have made criticizing Trump part of their campaigns.
Trump-hating Christie is sure to blast Trump on multiple fronts, including his decision not to attend the debate. The former close ally of the front-runner has called Trump a “coward” for not showing up.
DeSantis’ super PAC rushed out an ad asserting, “We can’t afford a nominee who is too weak to debate.”
But criticizing a candidate who dominates the field by 40 percentage points, who is seen by many conservatives as a victim of a political witch-hunt in the four criminal indictments against him, has its perils. When Hurd told the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner crowd last month that Trump is only running to avoid prison, he was basically booed off the stage.
DeSantis may be training his fire on Ramaswamy, the guy creeping up to him in the polls.
A debate strategy memo first disclosed last week by the New York Times shows DeSantis allies advising the Florida governor to “take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy while defending Trump, should Christie go after the former president in abstentia.
Scott, meanwhile, aims to focus on the positive. He told McCallum on her Fox News show, “The Story with Martha McCallum,” on Tuesday that he won’t be throwing any punches in this debate.
“I’m gonna tell my story about why I believe that America can do for anyone what she’s done for me. We’re gonna focus on restoring hope, creating opportunities, and protecting the America that we all love,” he said. Scott has been climbing in Iowa polls, giving DeSantis a run for his money for second place in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Fellow South Carolinian Haley released a pre-debate video “highlighting her toughness and vision for a strong and proud America.” She insists she would be President Joe Biden’s “worst nightmare” in a head-to-head general election matchup.
“Best of luck, gentlemen. We will see you in Milwaukee,” Haley, the only woman in the Republican Party nomination chase, said in a statement Tuesday.
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Vivek Ramaswamy” by Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo “Ron DeSantis” by Ron DeSantis. Background Photo “Debate Stage” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0.