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


While front-runner Donald Trump will skip the Republican Party's first presidential debate of 2024, eight of his Republican Party rivals will battle in their first leg Wednesday night in Milwaukee to emerge as the party's main alternate for the former president.

The two-hour debate begins at 9 p.m. Easter time. The show is hosted by Fox News Channel and hosted by 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 Gov. Ron DeSantis; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; former Governor of South Carolina 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 out for during Wednesday's debate:

Can DeSantis withstand bright light?

With Trump skipping Wednesday's debate, DeSantis — who ranks second in polls year-round in the country and states where he is most likely to vote for the Republican Party in the Republican primary — could become the number one destination in Milwaukee.

After all, Trump is well-liked by Republican voters, so an attack on the former president could scare off broad sections of the nuclear constituency. Instead, in a sort of repeat of the 2016 primary, many Republican Party candidates seem focused on initially positioning themselves as the most viable alternative to Trump on that front -- a status DeSantis currently holds.

After winning the 19-point re-election last year, DeSantis entered the Republican Party race with high hopes. However, he has yet to live up to that promise by postponing the elections, downsizing and reshuffling polling staff.

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

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

A good performance on Wednesday night could hold the Florida governor's ship.

But he was already going through an awkward period leading up to the debate when his super-PAC — with whom he has extremely close ties for outsourcing some of the functions normally performed in a candidate's own campaign — wrote to him in a memo Ramaswamy advised: “Hit and defend Trump as absent former President is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from the memo.

"It's a separate 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 on the biggest night of the 2024 campaign yet.

At least, that's the advice of former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who shared the stage with Trump in 2016 before dropping out of the race.

"The only person who will change your mind about Donald Trump is Donald Trump, not one of the candidates," Walker told CNN, sharing the advice he had given to some candidates. If they're wasting their time attacking him, that's exactly what they're doing: they're wasting their time. But if they come out and have a breakthrough, if they have passion, credibility and a bold agenda, people will be excited and make waves.”

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 remains centered around Trump — despite his decision to skip Milwaukee — also depends on the debate's moderators. They announced their plans to highlight the antagonisms between Republican candidates, including Trump.

While Walker thinks at least half of Republican voters would like to turn the tide, they have no desire 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 the debate without Trump, at least three of the eight candidates who took the stage on Wednesday -- Pence, Christie and Hutchinson -- have placed criticism of the former president at the heart of their campaigns.

They have been barred from a direct confrontation with Trump and their strategies are in serious question.

Pence pushed his way through as a committed ideological conservative, urging his rivals to take a clearer stance in support of state abortion restrictions — a stance those aware of the potential backlash in the general election may be reluctant to accept.

6 things to watch out for during the first Republican presidential debate in 2024 | CNN Policy (2)

Republican presidential nominee and former Vice President Mike Pence promotes the 2024 Republican presidential nominee at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa August 11, 2023.

The former vice president's action on January 6, 2021 could also give Fox News anchors a boost.

Christie is probably the biggest joker. He will be the only candidate on the podium Wednesday night who has already contested the presidential primary and has beaten rivals in the past — just ask Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

A unique appearance in South Carolina?

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

Scott is an active fundraiser and has an experienced campaign team. He's already dropped in at pivotal moments, delivering the Republican Party's 2021 response 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 out for during the first Republican presidential debate in 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 July 4th.

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

Haley is also offering new, diverse leadership for the Republican Party, but her campaign seems to believe the path to higher poll numbers lies through Ramaswamy, who has surged in poll numbers in recent weeks.

On Monday, Haley slammed the entrepreneur and political newcomer, claiming he was "completely wrong" in his call to limit US military aid to Israel.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, tweeted videos of him training and practicing tennis this week, describing the training as preparation for the debate.

Are breakthrough moments even possible?

Trump skips the debate but remains in the spotlight. He gave a taped interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, scheduled for release around the time of the debate. The interview will be published as a counter-program to the debate on X, formerly known as Twitter, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

On Thursday, attention will once again turn to Trump when he surrenders himself to the Fulton County Jail as part of the fourth spectacle in recent months.

Trump's campaign goal was also to saturate the airwaves with his advisers and allies before and after the debate. On Monday, however, Fox News told the Trump campaign that it would no longer direct some of the former president's deputies to participate in the spin room debate because the former president is not participating in the debate.

Trump, who will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, can also throw his own word grenades from the side. On Tuesday he said on his social media page Truth Social: "I'LL BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW - ENJOY!!!"

Without a leader on the ground, it's unclear if breakthrough moments will even be possible. And when such moments come, the cloud Trump is set to throw over the 2024 Republican race raises questions about whether any of his rivals could continue Wednesday night's winning streak.

Anyone have an oops moment?

Indeed, while the favorites have weathered the big debates of the recent presidential election, those who want to become their party's main alternative have had their chances dashed by poor debate results.

During the 2012 Republican election, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry had an "oops" moment when he forgot the name of the federal department he was trying to eliminate.

In 2016, Christie Rubio's momentum faltered when he joked about his "remembered 25-second speech" about Barack Obama. "Well, everyone," Christie said as Rubio successfully repeated the same phrase.

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren shattered the hopes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a minute with a scathing criticism, culminating in telling the public that Bloomberg's nomination would mean going against Trump to step up and "replace an arrogant billionaire." from another.

Already in the debate phase, some Republican Party candidates for 2024 are announcing possible attacks on their rivals. Christie has been slamming DeSantis for the past few days. Haley released a statement on Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.

Whether any candidate faces the relentless attacks that have enslaved presidential candidates in previous cycles — and how they respond to those attacks — could transform 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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