With a commanding lead in the Republican nomination race to take on Democratic President Joe Biden, Trump said this week he would not attend the debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday. Instead, he sat for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that is set to air the same day, potentially siphoning off debate viewers.
In Trump's absence, candidates are expected to launch a fusillade of attacks on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, as competitors try to displace him as Trump's top challenger, according to strategists and aides to rival campaigns. DeSantis is seen as vulnerable after a summer slide in the polls, which have left him languishing more than 30 points behind Trump in the race.
"He's going to be a punching bag," said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former senior aide to U.S. Senator Rand Paul. "DeSantis is considered a wounded candidate going the wrong way."
Still, Trump's no-show doesn't mean he won't be a major presence in the debate, which kicks off at the Fiserv Forum at 9 p.m. ET (0100 GMT on Thursday).
Martha MacCallum, a Fox News host who will moderate the debate alongside colleague Bret Baier, indicated in an interview with Vanity Fair last week that they will press the candidates to address Trump's four criminal indictments.
The event will be held one day before Trump plans to surrender in Atlanta in connection with his indictment in Georgia on charges he sought to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former close Trump adviser turned vocal critic, will likely use the debate to amplify his aggressive attacks on the former president. Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and former Vice President Mike Pence, who broke with his former boss after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, may also take shots at Trump.
But Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican political consultant, said the other candidates will likely refrain from criticizing Trump for fear of upsetting his base of supporters, whose votes they will need to win the Republican nomination. Polls show that most Republicans view the criminal charges against Trump as politically motivated, making the topic a tricky one to navigate for his rivals.
"He's still in the room because every Republican primary candidate is going to have to take a position on the former president and his legal troubles," Hoffman said. "It's a bit of a catch-22 for some candidates. They don't want Trump to be the candidate but they also can't be the one to take him out."
WILL THERE BE A BREAKOUT MOMENT?
The eight participants include U.S. Senator Tim Scott, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum in addition to DeSantis, Christie, Hutchinson and Pence.
In the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month, Trump held 47% of the Republican vote nationally, with DeSantis dropping six percentage points from July to 13%. None of the other candidates have broken out of single digits.
Both Darling and Hoffman said they saw the potential for Ramaswamy, a skilled orator who has climbed into the third spot in several national polls, to gain ground after the debate. Ramaswamy's policy positions are mostly deeply conservative and he has been a staunch supporter of Trump.
The DeSantis campaign is anticipating particularly harsh broadsides from Ramaswamy and Christie, a person close to the governor said. The governor's aides and allies see the debate as a potentially crucial moment that could help him breathe life back into his campaign.
Like other candidates, DeSantis needs to establish himself "as a good solid alternative to Trump," said Christopher Wlezien, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the electoral impact of debates.
Wlezien said he was skeptical that any contender would achieve a breakout moment on Wednesday. Trump has a huge lead in the polls and won't be on the stage to field any attacks.
"My expectations were low for big changes to begin with and it's even more so because Trump is not there," he said.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne, additional reporting by Gram Slattery, editing by Ross Colvin and Deepa Babington)
By Nathan Layne