6 things to watch for in the first Republican presidential debate in 2024 | CNN Politics (2023)


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

The two-hour debate begins at 9 p.m. eastern time. Hosted by Fox News Channel and moderated by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

CNN will follow the debate on cnn.com, including live updates, analysis and fact-checking.

Eight candidates will take the stage: Florida Governor 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 Governor Chris Christie; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott; former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

Here are six things to look out for in Wednesday's debate:

Can DeSantis withstand the bright light?

With Trump skipping Wednesday's debate, DeSantis — who has been ranked second in national and state polls all year for the likelihood of voting GOP in the Republican primary — could become the biggest target on the stage in Milwaukee.

After all, Trump is very popular among Republican Party voters, which means that an attack on the former president could repel wide swaths of the electorate. Instead, in something of a repeat of the 2016 primary, many GOP candidates appear focused on first positioning themselves as the most viable alternative to Trump in the field — a status that DeSantis currently holds.

After last year's re-election victory by 19 points, DeSantis entered the Republican Party race with high expectations. However, he has not yet fulfilled that promise, dragging out the elections, reducing and rearranging the electoral headquarters.

6 things to watch for in the first Republican presidential debate in 2024 | CNN Politics (1)

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

A good showing on Wednesday night could keep the Florida governor ship afloat.

But he had already experienced an awkward period before the debate when his super PAC — with which he has extremely close ties, entrusting him with a number of functions typically performed within a candidate's campaign — advised him in a memo to "slam" Ramaswamy and defend Trump if the absent former president attack Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from the memo.

"It is a special entity. I had nothing to do with it. I haven't read it and it doesn't reflect my strategy," DeSantis said Monday.

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

The former president's absence from the stage gives his Republican rivals a chance to introduce themselves and discuss their own ideas for the future in 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 the stage with Trump in 2016 before dropping out of the race.

"The only person who's going to change your mind about Donald Trump is Donald Trump, not any of the candidates," Walker told CNN, sharing advice he's given some candidates. If they're wasting time attacking him, that's what they're doing, wasting time. But if they come out and have a breakthrough moment, have passion, credibility and a bold plan, people will get excited and cause a stir."

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

The extent to which the debate will continue to revolve around Trump — despite his decision to skip Milwaukee — also depends on the debate's moderators. They have signaled their plans to highlight the contrasts between the Republican candidates, including Trump.

While Walker believes at least half of Republican voters will be happy to turn the page, they have no appetite to attack Trump. "It's like attacking a member of your own family," he said.

The role of Trump critics without Trump

While others might enjoy a debate without Trump, at least three of the eight candidates who will take the stage on Wednesday — Pence, Christie and Hutchinson — have made criticism of the former president central to their campaigns.

They have been denied a direct confrontation with Trump, and their strategies are a big question mark.

Pence has charted his own course as a committed ideological conservative and encouraged his rivals to take a clearer line on supporting federal abortion restrictions — a position they may be reluctant to adopt, mindful of the potential backlash in the general election.

6 things to watch for in the first Republican presidential debate in 2024 | CNN Politics (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 actions of the former vice president on January 6, 2021 could also be used for Fox News moderators.

Christie is probably the biggest wild card. He'll be the only candidate on stage Wednesday night who has run in a presidential primary before and has a history of beating opponents — just ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

A unique performance in South Carolina?

Scott and Haley, two challengers from South Carolina, are looking for breakout moments.

Scott is an active fundraiser and has an experienced campaign team. It has already come through in major moments, providing the Republican Party's 2021 answer to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address. As the only black Republican in the Senate, he could help the party expand its growing coalition of non-white conservatives.

6 things to watch for in the first Republican presidential debate in 2024 | CNN Politics (3)

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

However, he is also a happy fighter, offering an optimistic message that can sometimes get lost in the stages of debate.

Haley also offers the GOP new, differentiated leadership, but her campaign appears to believe her path to higher poll numbers lies through Ramaswamy, who has surged in the ratings in recent weeks.

Haley lashed out at the businessman and political newcomer on Monday, saying he was "absolutely wrong" in his call to limit US military aid to Israel.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, posted videos on Twitter of himself working out and practicing tennis this week, describing the exercise as preparation for the debate.

Are breakthrough moments even possible?

Trump skips the debate, but remains in the spotlight. He gave a pre-recorded interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that will be released around the time of the debate. The interview will be posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, as a counter to the debate, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

Then on Thursday, attention will turn back to Trump as he surrenders to the Fulton County Jail in what will be the fourth such spectacle in months.

Trump's campaign goal was also to saturate the airwaves with his advisers and allies before and after the debate. However, on Monday, Fox News informed the Trump campaign that it would no longer make recommendations to some of the former president's deputies to attend the spin room debate, because the former president is not attending the debate.

Trump, who will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, can also throw his own river grenades from the sidelines. He took to his social media page Truth Social on Tuesday to say: "I'LL BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW - ENJOY!!!"

Without a leader on the scene, it is unclear whether breakthrough moments will even be possible. And if such moments do happen, the cloud Trump will cast over the 2024 GOP race raises questions about whether any of his rivals will be able to continue their winning streak Wednesday night.

Anyone having an oops moment?

Although the front-runners have survived major debates in recent presidential election cycles, the prospects of those seeking to become the most important alternative to their party have been effectively thwarted by poor debate results.

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

In 2016, Christie halted Rubio's momentum when he mocked his "memorable 25-second speech" about Barack Obama. "Well, everybody," Christie said when Rubio successfully repeated the same line.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dashed the hopes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a minute with a scathing critique that culminated in her telling the crowd that Bloomberg's nomination to fight Trump would mean replacing "one arrogant billionaire with another."

Already at the debate stage, some Republican Party candidates for 2024 are telegraphing possible attacks on rivals. In recent days, Christie has taken down DeSantis. On Monday, Haley released a statement criticizing Ramaswamy.

Whether any of the candidates face the relentless attacks that have dogged presidential candidates in previous cycles — and how they respond to those attacks — could change the trajectory of the Republican race.

This story has been updated with additional events.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.


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