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


With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first Republican primary debate of 2024, eight of his Republican rivals will compete to become the party's top alternative to the former president in their first showdown on stage Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

The two-hour long debate begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time Zone. Hosted by Fox News Channel, moderated by hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

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

Eight candidates will take the stage: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; businessman 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 during Wednesday's debate:

Can DeSantis withstand the bright lights?

With Trump skipping Wednesday night's debate, DeSantis — who was second in likely Republican primaries all year during likely Republican primaries all year — could be the biggest target on the stage in Milwaukee.

After all, Trump remains generally popular among Republican voters, meaning an attack on the former president could alienate large swathes of primary voters. Instead, in a repeat of the 2016 primaries, many Republican candidates seem focused on positioning themselves as the most viable Trump alternative in the field — a situation DeSantis now assumes.

After a 19-point re-election victory last year, DeSantis entered the GOP race with high expectations. But he has yet to deliver on that promise: he has stalled at the polls while downsizing and reshuffling his campaign staff.

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

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

A strong performance Wednesday night could steady the ship for Florida's governor.

But he has already gone through an embarrassing run-up to the debate, as his super PAC (one with which he has unusually close ties, having delegated certain functions normally handled by a candidate's campaign himself) was advised in a memo by Ramaswamy to to "blow the whistle" and defend Trump as the absent former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from that note.

"This is a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It's not something I've read, nor is it a reflection of my strategy," DeSantis said Monday.

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

The former president's absence from the stage gives his Republican rivals a chance to introduce themselves and talk about their own ideas for the future on the biggest night of the 2024 campaign.

At least that's the advice of Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who shared a debate stage with Trump during the 2016 cycle 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 some advice he's given some of the candidates. "If they waste time attacking him, they're doing just that: wasting their time. But when they come out and have a big moment and have passion and credibility and a cool agenda, people get excited and fired up."

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

The extent to which the debate continues to revolve around Trump — despite his decision to skip Milwaukee — is also in the hands of the debate moderators. They revealed their plans to highlight the contrasts between the Republican candidates, including Trump.

While Walker believes at least half of Republican voters want to turn the page, they have little desire to attack Trump. "It's like attacking a member of your family," he said.

The role of Trump critics without Trump

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

Because they lack the ability to confront Trump directly, their strategies are big question marks.

Pence has forged his own path as a committed ideological conservative and has pushed his opponents to take clearer positions in support of federal abortion restrictions — a position that those wary of potential election backlash may be reluctant to take.

6 things to watch for in the first 2024 Republican primary debate 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 former vice president's own actions on January 6, 2021 could also be fodder for the Fox News moderators' questions.

Christy is probably the biggest wildcard. He will be the only candidate on the podium Wednesday night who has previously run for president and has a history of beating his opponents — just ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Highlight of South Carolina?

Scott and Haley, the two South Carolina contenders, are both looking for their breakout moments.

Scott is a prolific fundraiser with an experienced campaign team. He has had big moments in the past, delivering the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address in 2021. And 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 2024 Republican primary debate 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 cheerful warrior who conveys the kind of upbeat messages that can sometimes get lost in conversation.

Haley also offers the GOP diverse new leadership, but her campaign appears to believe its path to the top polls goes through Ramaswamy, who has risen through the ranks in recent weeks.

Speaking about the businessman and political newcomer on Monday, Haley said he is "absolutely wrong" to call for cuts in US military aid to Israel.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, tweeted videos of himself playing and practicing tennis this week, describing the practice in preparation for his debate.

Are breakout moments even strong?

Trump avoids the debate, but he does not leave the spotlight. He participated in a taped interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which is expected to be released around the time of the debate. The interview will be published on X, formerly known as Twitter, as counterprogramming to the debate, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.

On Thursday, the focus will return to Trump as he is delivered to the Fulton County Jail, the fourth in recent months.

Trump's campaign also sought to fill the airwaves with his aides and allies before and after the debate. However, Fox News informed the Trump campaign on Monday that it will no longer provide credentials to some of the former president's surrogates to attend the debate room, as the former president will not be participating in the debate.

Trump, who will be at the golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, could also throw his own verbal grenades from the sidelines. He told social media network Truth Social on Tuesday: "I'M GOING TO BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW NIGHT - ENJOY!!!"

Without the leader on the podium, it is not clear whether breakout moments will be possible. And as those moments happen, the cloud Trump casts over the 2024 Republican race raises questions about whether any of his rivals could turn a strong performance into sustained momentum Wednesday night.

Anyone having an "oops" moment?

While the front-runners survived the primary debates in the last presidential election, those vying to become their party's top alternative actually saw their chances tarnished by poor debate performances.

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

In 2016, Christie halted Rubio's momentum when she mocked his "memorized 25-second speech" about Barack Obama. "Here it is, yes," Christie said as Rubio repeated essentially the same phrase.

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren crushed the hopes of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in less than a minute. billionaire for someone else."

Some 2024 Republican candidates are already telegraphing potential attacks on debate opponents. Christie beat DeSandis in the last few days. Haley released a statement Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.

Whether a candidate faces the kind of vicious attacks that have plagued past presidential candidates — and how they respond to those attacks — could change the trajectory of the Republican race.

This story has been updated with further developments.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.


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