Donald Trump’s rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination are pinning all their hopes on scoring some big points against the former president and front-runner during the first Republican primary debate, to be held in Milwaukee later this month.
But landing punches against Trump might not prove as effective if he doesn’t actually show up on Aug. 23. The former president, who is facing multiple criminal indictments, has yet to confirm his attendance at the debate. In an interview last month, Trump said that “when you have a big lead, you don’t do it.”
Trump’s appearance onstage could prove risky: It would give his opponents a chance to rip into him in person, potentially creating a viral moment to fuel their campaign. It’s also possible that Trump’s ego simply can’t pass up an opportunity to suck up all the attention.
The former president is keeping everyone in suspense, conducting a makeshift poll of his supporters about the idea at a campaign event on Tuesday.
“Maybe we’ll do something else,” Trump said in Windham, New Hampshire, teasing the possibility of a competing event.
Just about everyone in the GOP has a vested interest in Trump appearing onstage, not the least being the Republican National Committee and ratings-hungry Fox News, whose executives recently lobbied the former president to attend while dining at his Bedminster golf club.
“I think it’s a mistake not to do the debates,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said last month. “You want to win the nomination, you got to get in front of those primary voters. But for me, it’s another part of it … this is an audience of 20 million people, plus.”
Trump’s top rivals are piling on this week, trying to provoke him into debating.
“Hopefully, former President Trump has the courage to show up,” former Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign said Tuesday after announcing Pence had qualified for the debate stage.
It was Trump who urged Pence, his then-vice president, to show “courage” on Jan. 6, 2021, by fraudulently overturning Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Pence maintains he had no power to do so under the U.S. Constitution, blaming Trump’s “crackpot lawyers” for pushing the scheme.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, turned the tables on Trump after the former president mocked him over his weight and appearance in New Hampshire.
“Don’t call him a fat pig,” Trump told the crowd, referring to Christie.
“Christie, he’s eating right now,” he added. “He can’t be bothered.”
Christie, a former close adviser to Trump who has since become one of the former president’s most vocal critics, responded in a post online, urging Trump to “say it to my face.”
The campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s top challenger in the race for the Republican nomination, is also arguing that skipping the debate would cost Trump in early primary states.
ABC News reported that the DeSantis campaign believes the move could be bad for Trump, based on its polling with Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. New
If Trump does attend, DeSantis is expected to “leverage the face-to-face opportunity to highlight differences between himself and Trump,” the outlet reported.
If anyone needs a Hail Mary right now, it’s DeSantis. The governor is struggling in the polls, and his donors are pushing for a change in strategy.
On Tuesday, DeSantis’ campaign announced its third staff shakeup this summer: His gubernatorial office’s chief of staff replaced his presidential campaign manager in an effort to reinvigorate DeSantis’ faltering White House bid.