A former President Donald Trump supporter stands near the Fiserv Forum Tuesday as setup continues for Wednesday's Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee.
A former President Donald Trump supporter stands near the Fiserv Forum Tuesday as setup continues for Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee. [Morry Gash | AP]

5 questions ahead of the first GOP primary debate of the 2024 election cycle

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MILWAUKEE (NPR) — Let’s get right to the obvious — former President Donald Trump, the far-and-away frontrunner for the GOP nomination again, will not be at the Republican Party’s first presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.

Why? He’s refusing to sign a pledge to support whomever the nominee will be, proving once again that Trump believes today’s Republican Party is a party of one. It’s ironic that Trump is making this decision because the pledge was largely intended to benefit him — to make sure the other candidates would be on board with another Trump run and not display any disunity within the party.

It’s also ironic considering this is a Republican National Committee-sponsored debate, an RNC Trump has stacked with loyalists. Instead, as he’s done before, Trump will be counterprogramming this Fox News debate, appearing instead in an interview that is set to air at the same time as the debate with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host.

Drama. We have some questions. Here are five of the biggest.

1. Which gets more attention — the debate or Trump’s counterprogramming?

Trump sitting for an interview with Carlson is a two-for-one jab — one against the RNC and one against Fox News, the debate’s main media host.

Trump has billed himself as the perennial outsider, despite being a quasi-incumbent former president. Fox, which at one point was a Trump bullhorn during his presidency, has vacillated in its support of him. It abandoned him after Jan. 6 and boosted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But DeSantis’ campaign has sputtered and the conservative audience still has very warm feelings for Trump, putting the conservative media outlet in a pickle.

Trump knows he has leverage, and when that’s the case, he doesn’t mind toying with the powers that be. It plays into his “outsider” narrative, plus, he loves creating chaos to gain attention for himself.

Remember, he did this in 2016, when he skipped a Fox debate, because then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly was going to host. Trump didn’t like a line of questioning from Kelly previously and said she had “blood coming out of her wherever.”

Trump then went on to counterprogram with a questionable televised veterans “fundraiser.” A judge later penalized the now-defunct Trump Foundation $2 million for misuse of funds. That stunt stole the spotlight then. Does history repeat itself now?

2. How much, if at all, do the candidates on the debate stage focus on Trump?

Clockwise: Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, Mike Pence
Clockwise: Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, Mike Pence
[Jacquelyn Martin | AP; Octavio Jones | Getty Images; Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg; Mark Makela | Getty Images; Anna Moneymaker | Getty Images; Dan Keock | Reuters; Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images]
What others choose to focus on if Trump isn’t there is a big thing worth watching. Do they wind up piling on and going after him, like trailing candidates traditionally do to a frontrunner in a debate — or do they hold back?

The likely answer is most will likely try to avoid Trump as a subject, except for vocal critics like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Trump will likely come up, but how? Will it be through the Fox News moderators or through the candidates themselves, and how will that land with the audience?

Remember, this is many of the candidates’ first chance to introduce themselves to a wider GOP audience of millions of people and the last thing they want to do is cede the spotlight again to Trump when he’s not even there. Plus, the GOP base doesn’t want the focus to be on the former president. A CBS poll out this week found that 91% of likely GOP primary voters said they want the candidates to focus on making the case for themselves rather than going after Trump.

Three-quarters of them also cited the need to show support for the former president during his legal troubles as a reason to vote for him. They simply believe the indictments are politically motivated. Two-thirds of likely Iowa GOP primary voters told the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll out this week that they have a favorable opinion of Trump.

Just how deep is the love for Trump among the base? No joke: Republicans in the CBS poll said they trust him to tell them the truth more than their own friends and family.

3. So what will the candidates focus on then?

That sentiment among GOP voters may be one reason a leaked memo from a super PAC supporting DeSantis advised him to defend the former president and attack — get this — former tech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy.

Ramaswamy, 37, is a candidate who has gained in the polls lately, but DeSantis and the other candidates need to go through Trump to win the nomination — not a candidate who is unlikely to be the nominee. So the focus in this debate could be a bit blurry.

On the issues, the economy and inflation continue to poll as the top ones for potential GOP voters, but will these candidates put forward any serious proposals, as opposed to simply criticizing President Biden, floating more tax cuts or saying they want to fire the current Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, someone most Americans have probably never heard of?

It’s reminiscent of the debates in 2012 and 2016 when candidates opposed the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare, but had no workable solutions to replace it.

There could be splits on some issues, too, that divide the stage, like Ukraine. On the one hand, people like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott are in the traditional GOP, pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia camp, but DeSantis and Ramaswamy are echoing Trump’s position in walking a line and saying it’s not a war that’s a vital U.S. interest.

But expect a healthy dose of culture-war issues, because that’s what fires up and unifies the GOP base. So expect to hear about crime, immigration and gender-identity issues. It’s really the glue that binds the party base right now. One social issue that the candidates haven’t quite figured out a unified message on yet, though, is abortion. And that’s something that’s unified Democrats since Roe was overturned.

4. What is the importance of where the debate is being held?

This debate is taking place in Wisconsin, which is not an early nominating state, but it is one that has been very close in recent presidential elections. It has tipped to Democrats, but it’s the type of place Republicans need to win if they want to reverse their fortunes of having lost seven of the last eight popular votes in presidential elections — and more importantly winning the Electoral College.

So what will these candidates’ messages be in a place like this? A focus on extreme, hard-right social issues won’t get them very far in a general election, and this is the first debate in front of a national audience and the first chance for not just the candidates, but the party, to show they are serious.

But, of course, a candidate has to win a primary before getting to a general election, so expect the primary audience for these candidates to still be GOP primary voters.

5. Can any candidate emerge from Trump’s shadow?

Former President Donald Trump dances on stage at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Former President Donald Trump dances on stage at the Turning Point Action conference on July 15, in West Palm Beach, Fla. [Lynne Sladky | AP]
This is the bottom line. The GOP primary so far has been dominated by Trump — what he is doing, what indictment he’s under, which topics he wants to elevate.

Can Scott, who’s spending millions on ads in Iowa, use his biographical story to connect with the audience and draw a sunny contrast with Trump without needing to talk about him?

Can Haley, the only woman on the stage, hammer home the point that she’s been making in the run up to the debate that she’s the candidate Democrats fear most — and make the audience believe it?

Can Ramaswamy keep up his momentum and convince Republicans he’s not just a gadfly but someone they can seriously see as president?

Can DeSantis reclaim the spotlight and look like the man Republican voters thought he would be before he actually began running?

No one in the party has gotten out from under Trump’s shadow since he emerged on the political scene eight years ago. Trump has been like a solar eclipse in that time, including in this GOP primary. He’s had a transcendental, hypnotic-like hold on the party in that time, and this debate, in theory, is an opportunity for one of these candidates to emerge without Trump blotting out the sun.

But that’s only if they can capitalize and so far no one has. And whatever momentum the debate “winner” might get, it’s likely to be overshadowed once again hours later, as Trump is expected to be booked Thursday in Georgia in the case against him for trying to overthrow the state’s 2020 election results.

Republicans’ biggest problem in the Trump era, and arguably extending back before that to the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, is that they have often been in the extreme and out of step with most Americans.

So it’s quite possible, if not likely, that this debate and this week, only serves to reinforce that.

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