Eight Republican presidential candidates will take to the stage Wednesday evening in Milwaukee for the first debate of the 2024 campaign.
The clash, televised by Fox News, will not include former President Trump, who has declined to participate because he has a commanding lead in the polls.
Trump will cast a long shadow, however. He has reportedly recorded an interview with Tucker Carlson, which is expected to go public sometime on Wednesday. He has also said he will surrender to Georgia authorities on Thursday, having been indicted over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in the state.
Trump leads the GOP field by around 40 points in national polls despite his legal troubles.
The stakes are sky-high for his rivals on Wednesday. Here’s what each of them has to do.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
DeSantis faces a crunch moment.
His campaign has been deeply underwhelming so far.
He has drifted downwards in the polls. He has failed to do Trump any damage at all. And even his hold on second place looks tenuous, thanks to the unexpected rise of biotech businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy was tied with DeSantis for second place in an Emerson College poll released late last week.
If DeSantis were to lose his status as the main alternative to Trump, it would spell doom for the Florida governor’s candidacy.
That means DeSantis has to be aggressive on Wednesday, sharpening his case against Trump but also aiming some verbal fire at the other candidates. If he is overshadowed by anyone else on the stage, he’s in real trouble.
Finally, some of DeSantis’s campaign-trail encounters have fueled criticisms that he lacks social skills. If the governor can humanize himself in the eyes of GOP voters, that will be an important victory as he looks to turn his campaign around.
Can Ramaswamy build on his momentum to become a real contender or is he about to recede like Republican candidates in previous cycles — Ben Carson, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the late Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) — who fizzled after an early jolt of excitement?
Wednesday’s debate could go a long way in determining that — especially since Ramaswamy arrives in Milwaukee under increased scrutiny.
His campaign has been beset with questions about remarks he made to The Atlantic regarding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The entrepreneur appeared to give a nod-and-wink to conspiracy theories about those events, though his remarks were confusingly phrased.
“How many police, how many federal agents were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers?’ Like, I think we want — maybe the answer is zero, probably is zero for all I know, right?” Ramaswamy said. “I have no reason to think it was anything other than zero. But if we’re doing a comprehensive assessment of what happened on 9/11, we have a 9/11 commission, absolutely that should be an answer the public knows the answer to.”
The candidate then deepened his trouble by claiming he had been misquoted. The Atlantic released a recording showing he had been quoted correctly.
Other candidates will surely attack him for this — and other things. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley hit him on Monday for remarks last week proposing cuts in aid to Israel.
Ramaswamy has attracted attention for obvious reasons — his relative youth at 38, his wealth and his nose for headline-grabbing moves.
He has previously suggested he would abolish the FBI and proposed that under-25s should be allowed to vote only if they passed a civics test or were in certain forms of public service. He also offered an innovative fundraising gambit by which anyone who helped him raise money would get paid a commission.
That’s all well and good. But Ramaswamy needs to show he can stand up under the klieg lights — and under attack from rivals — on Wednesday night.
Former Vice President Mike Pence
If the Republican Party had stayed as it was a decade ago, Pence would surely be a frontrunner — a former vice president, governor and congressman with a solid conservative record and deep roots in the evangelical movement.
Unfortunately for Pence, the GOP has been transformed by his old boss, Trump.
Historians will judge Pence favorably for standing up against Trump’s pressure to overturn the 2020 election. But Republicans do not. Pence has a higher unfavorable rating among GOP voters than almost any other candidate.
On Wednesday, Pence will face the same knotty problem that has afflicted his campaign since it began: how to simultaneously take credit for the achievements of what he calls “the Trump-Pence administration,” while distancing himself from Trump and defending his own actions around Jan. 6, 2021.
It may not be possible to do those things and win significant Republican support. It took the former vice president a conspicuously long time to draw enough donors to even qualify for the debate.
But Pence, at one time a talk-radio host, can be underestimated as a communicator. He easily held his own in the 2016 and 2020 vice-presidential debates with Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Vice President Harris, respectively.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
Haley and her fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, come to the stage Wednesday facing similar challenges — but also with the chance to seize an opportunity.
Like Scott, Haley is a serious, credible political figure. Before serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she was the first woman and first person of color to serve as governor of South Carolina.
Haley has made a big bet on hitting the stump in the early states, maintaining an arduous schedule in Iowa and New Hampshire. She is a gifted retail politician who often reminds crowds she has never lost an election.
That said, Haley has struggled to get any traction in national polls. In the FiveThirtyEight national average, she is mired around three percent.
The debate provides her best chance for a game-changing, standout moment.
She has one obvious advantage when it comes to differentiating herself from her rivals: She will be the only woman on the stage.
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)
Scott’s position going into the debate is eerily similar to that of Haley. The two are even polling at a near-identical level nationwide.
Scott is widely respected and liked within the GOP.
But there is not much evidence that the voters are buying what he’s selling: a strongly conservative platform presented in affable style by a candidate who also goes after Democrats for purportedly weaponizing race to divide America.
Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, is uniquely well-placed to make the latter part of that argument. His supporters believe he could have a shot at positioning himself as the main alternative to Trump if DeSantis’s stumbles continue.
But Scott’s campaign so far has lacked impact. He badly needs to change that on Wednesday.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Expectations play a huge role in perceptions of who wins or loses debates — and Christie is in an odd spot.
On one hand, the former prosecutor is a formidable debater whose memorable takedown of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a February 2016 debate inflicted a serious wound on Rubio.
On the other hand, Christie is polling only around three percent nationally. He contends that a strong performance in the New Hampshire primary — friendlier territory for him than socially conservative Iowa — would transform the race.
Christie’s campaign is largely built on his vigorous criticisms of Trump. He will surely press his case against the absent former president on Wednesday. Sparks could fly — and it will be fascinating to see the audience reaction.
Another key thing to watch will be how strongly Christie goes after DeSantis. Christie, like everyone else on the stage, senses opportunity if DeSantis can be knocked on the canvas.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
It’s tough to see any obvious way forward for the mild-mannered but Trump-skeptical Hutchinson.
He is likely to be overshadowed in any sharp criticisms of Trump by the more pugnacious Christie.
He can at least make the case for what he sees as his commonsense conservatism. It’s just unclear how far that will take him.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum
Burgum, a billionaire businessman, can self-finance his campaign. But that doesn’t guarantee an impact on the debate stage.
For Burgum, the challenge will be to make his mark in the opportunities he’s given to speak.
Those opportunities may be more limited than for his higher-polling rivals, who are expected to be a greater focus of the moderators’ attentions.