6 Things to Watch for in the First Republican Presidential Debate of 2024 | CNN Policy (2023)


With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first Republican presidential debate of 2024, eight of his Republican rivals will compete to emerge as the party's top alternative to the former president in their first onstage showdown on Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

The two-hour debate is scheduled to begin at 9 pm. Eastern Time. It is hosted by Fox News Channel, moderated by hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

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

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

Here are six things to watch for Wednesday night's debate:

Can the DeSantis withstand the bright lights?

With Trump missing from Wednesday night's debate, DeSantis — who ranked second nationally and in early-voting states among likely Republican primary voters all year — could be the biggest target on stage. in Milwaukee.

After all, Trump remains wildly popular with Republican voters, which means that attacking the former president could alienate large swaths of the primary electorate. Instead, in something of a repeat of the 2016 primaries, many GOP candidates seem focused on first positioning themselves as the most viable Trump alternative in the field — a status DeSantis now occupies.

After a 19-point re-election victory last year, DeSantis entered the GOP race with sky-high expectations. But he has yet to deliver on that promise, stalling in the polls while downsizing and reorganizing his campaign staff.

6 Things to Watch for in the First Republican Presidential Debate of 2024 | CNN Policy (1)

Republican presidential candidate and Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 28.

A strong performance on Wednesday night could stabilize the Florida governor's ship.

But he has already endured embarrassing debate preparation, when his super PAC - with whom he has unusually close ties after outsourcing a number of functions normally performed by a candidate's own campaign - in a memo advised him to "hammer" Ramaswamy and defend Trump if the absentee former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from that memo.

“That is a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It's not something I've read and it doesn't reflect my strategy," DeSantis said Monday.

For Trump or not for Trump? That is the question.

The former president's absence from the stage offers his Republican rivals the opportunity to come forward and talk about their own ideas for the future on the biggest night of the 2024 campaign so far.

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

"The only person who changes your mind about Donald Trump is Donald Trump - not any one of the candidates," Walker told CNN, sharing some advice he gave to some of the candidates. “If they waste time attacking you, they are doing just that, they are wasting time. But if they step up and have groundbreaking momentum and have passion and credibility and a bold agenda, that will get people excited and create buzz.”

He added: "I'm not saying it's going to happen, but at least it gives them a fighting chance."

The degree to which the debate still revolves around Trump — despite his decision to ignore Milwaukee — is also in the hands of the debate moderators. They signaled their plans to try to highlight contrasts between 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 Role of Trump Critics Without Trump

While others may appreciate a Trump-free debate, at least three of the eight candidates on Wednesday — Pence, Christie and Hutchinson — have put their criticism of the former president at the center of their campaigns.

Denied the opportunity to confront Trump directly, his strategies are big question marks.

Pence carved his own path as a devoted ideological conservative and pressed his rivals to take clearer positions in support of federal abortion restrictions — a position that those aware of the potential backlash in a general election may be hesitant to take.

6 Things to Watch for in the First Republican Presidential Debate of 2024 | CNN Policy (2)

Republican presidential candidate and former vice president Mike Pence campaigns for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 11, 2023.

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

Christie is perhaps the biggest wild card. He will be the only candidate onstage Wednesday night who has participated in presidential primary debates before and has a track record of getting the better of his rivals – just ask Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

A South Carolina highlight?

Scott and Haley, the two candidates from South Carolina, are looking for highlights.

Scott is a prolific fundraiser with an experienced campaign team. He's been in big moments before, delivering the GOP's 2021 answer 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 nonwhite conservatives.

6 Things to Watch for in the First Republican Presidential Debate of 2024 | CNN Policy (3)

Republican presidential candidate Senator Tim Scott poses for a selfie at the start of the Fourth of July Parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire, on July 4.

Yet he is also a happy warrior, delivering the kind of upbeat message that can sometimes get lost on the debate stage.

Haley also offers the Republican Party a diverse new lead, but his campaign appears to believe its path to higher polling numbers is through Ramaswamy, who has risen through the ranks in recent weeks.

Haley vented on Monday about the businessman and political newcomer, saying he is "completely wrong" in his call to reduce US military aid to Israel.

Meanwhile, Ramaswamy has tweeted videos of himself practicing tennis and working out this week, describing those workouts as his preparation for the debate.

Are moments of rupture possible?

Trump is skipping the debate, but he's not giving in to the spotlight. He sat down for a prerecorded interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which is expected to be released around the time of the debate. The interview will be broadcast on X, formerly known as Twitter, as a counter-program 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 Fulton County Jail, the fourth such spectacle in recent months.

The Trump campaign also sought to saturate the airwaves with its aides and allies before and after the debate. However, Fox News informed the Trump campaign on Monday that it will no longer provide credentials to some of the former president's replacements to appear in the debate rotation room, since the former president will not participate in the debate.

Trump, who will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, will also be able to throw his own verbal grenades outside. He said on his Truth Social on Tuesday: "I WILL BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW NIGHT - ENJOY IT!!!"

Without the favorite on stage, it's unclear whether breakthrough moments are possible. And if those moments come to pass, the cloud Trump casts over the 2024 Republican race raises questions about whether any of his rivals could perform strongly on Wednesday night and get lasting momentum.

Will anyone have an 'oops' moment?

While major candidates have survived primary debates in recent presidential election cycles, those vying to emerge as their party's main alternative have seen their chances effectively dashed with poor performances in debates.

In the 2012 Republican race, it was Texas Governor Rick Perry's "oops" moment when he forgot the name of the federal department he wanted to eliminate.

In 2016, Christie interrupted Rubio's momentum when he mocked her "25-second memorized speech" about Barack Obama. “There you go, folks,” said Christie when Rubio effectively repeated the same phrase.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren dashed former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's hopes in the space of a minute, delivering a scathing critique that culminated in telling the public that nominating Bloomberg to face Trump would be replacing " one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Some Republican candidates in 2024 are already telegraphing potential attacks on debate-stage rivals. Christie defeated DeSantis in the final days. Haley released a statement on Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.

Whether any candidate faces the kinds of relentless attacks that have beset presidential candidates in past cycles — and how they respond to those attacks — could alter the trajectory of the Republican race.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

Jeff Zeleny of CNN contributed to this report.


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