What to watch for in Wednesday’s GOP primary debate
Former President Donald Trump has opted to skip the debate sponsored by the Republican National Committee, the first to have eight candidates take the stage at once.
The 2024 election season officially kicks off Wednesday night in Milwaukee, where eight Republicans will engage in the first presidential debate and field questions about their prospective White House agendas.
The Republican National Committee confirmed on Tuesday that eight candidates had qualified for the debate, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
To qualify for an appearance on the debate stage, candidates needed to clear at least 40,000 donors, including at least 200 from 20 or more states or territories. In addition, they needed to reach 1% support in three national polls or a combination of national polls and surveys from certain early primary states. The RNC further required that candidates sign a pledge to support the eventual party nominee.
Former President Donald Trump has opted to skip the debate, citing his commanding polling lead as a reason to decline participation. He has previously expressed skepticism of the nominee pledge as well.
At present, Trump stands as the clear frontrunner in the race, claiming 55.9% support in the RealClearPolitics polling average, ostensibly of those intending to vote for the GOP nominee. The qualifying candidates garnered far less support, with 14.6% backing DeSantis, 7.1% opting for Ramaswamy, 4.3% for Pence, 3.3% for Haley, 3.1% for Christie, 3.0% for Scott, 0.9% for Hutchinson, and 0.5% for Burgum.
Businessman Perry Johnson, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and conservative media personality Larry Elder did not qualify to appear on the debate stage.
Trump, for his part, will reportedly release a prerecorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Here are some of the things to watch for in the debate:
DeSantis vs. Ramaswamy et al.
Ramaswamy, the tech mogul, has surged in support over recent months, with some surveys showing him tied with or ahead of the Florida governor. He currently holds third place nationally, though the general trend of his polling surge and a decline in support for DeSantis have placed the pair at odds for the position of the strongest Trump alternative.
Many of the other candidates are likely to target the Florida governor as well in light of his status as the highest polling candidate appearing on stage.
Appearing on the "Just the News, No Noise" television show on Tuesday, senior DeSantis advisor Ryan Tyson suggested that the governor would attempt to leverage his record in the Sunshine State and present a roadmap for repeating his successes at the national level.
"Tonight, or tomorrow night actually, is when he starts to show people how he translates being a great governor into being a great president, all of the things that he accomplished as governor," Tyson said. "He's got a vision to do that in this country. And I think what's most important, when you look at tomorrow night, a lot of great people that are going to be on that stage. A lot of them have a lot of great ideas of things that they would like to see done. There's only one on stage who's actually accomplish[ed] those things."
"So he looks forward to being able to bring that message and show that vision and being able to translate those successes as the greatest governor in this country, to being the greatest president," Tyson added.
Chris Christie vs. Trump (in absentia)
Christie, since declaring his candidacy, has leveraged his criticism toward the former president. The former New Jersey governor was previously a political ally of Trump, though their relationship has soured considerably in recent years.
The Christie campaign has thrown potshots at other candidates, but has primarily focused on the ex-commander-in-chief and given his substantial polling lead, there is little reason to expect that Christie will refrain from going after Trump despite his absence from the stage.
Trump's legal woes
Trump has previously stated that he will surrender himself to face arraignment in Fulton County, Georgia on Thursday, likely casting a shadow over the events of the prior evening.
The former president has contended that the now-four indictments against him are part of a broader political witch hunt against him to derail his return to the White House. While some candidates such as Ramaswamy have committed to pardoning Trump should he be convicted, others have remained silent or non-committal on outcome of the frontrunner's criminal cases.
Ukraine, abortion, and policy
Fox News's Martha MacCallum has already indicated that the Ukraine War and abortion will feature as key subjects in the first debate.
The abortion issue has become a tightrope for many would-be Republican officeholders since the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the claimed constitutional right to the procedure, and returning the question of regulating abortion to the states.
At the state level, Republican states have largely restricted the procedure, in contrast with states controlled by Democrats, who have fought to preserve access to abortion. Most Republican candidates have been reluctant to commit to pursuing tighter restrictions at the national level.
The war in Ukraine has also divided the party's hopefuls. Some, such as DeSantis and Ramaswamy are opting for either negotiating with Russia or staying out of the entire conflict. Others, including Christie, Haley, and Pence, have generally backed continued military aid to Kyiv.
Ben Whedon is an editor and reporter for Just the News. Follow him on Twitter.