Former President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 2023.
The 2024 Republican presidential primary is set to enter a new phase this week, but it’s one that will play out across two stages – in Milwaukee, where at least seven contenders will meet Wednesday night for the first GOP debate of the cycle, and in the drama surrounding the legal woes of the front-runner, former President Donald Trump.
Trump announced Sunday he’s skipping the first debate, effectively depriving his intraparty rivals of oxygen in a week when his surrender and arraignment in Fulton County, Georgia, will also dominate headlines.
Writing on his social media platform, the former president said that the public already “knows who I am” and that “I will therefore not be doing the debates!”
Hours before Trump posted, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Fox News that she was “still holding out hope” that he would participate in the debate.
“I think it’s so important that the American people hear from all the candidates,” she said.
A Trump adviser said the former president could still decide to participate in a later primary debate, despite his post.
Trump’s absence will deny the other GOP hopefuls the kinds of standout, viral moments that could come from clashes with the party’s front-runner.
But Wednesday night’s debate will still be the largest audience most of the party’s presidential field has ever had as they seek to replace the former president as the GOP standard-bearer – and it could become a crucial moment as Republican primary voters sort out which candidates are viable Trump alternatives and which are not.
The debate stage grew one podium larger on Sunday, as former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had amassed the minimum number of donors necessary to participate.
To qualify for the debate, candidates must have at least 40,000 unique donors, with at least 200 unique donors from 20 or more states or territories, and must reach at least 1% in three national polls meeting the RNC’s requirements or at least 1% in two national polls and two polls from separate early voting states.
They are also expected to sign a loyalty pledge expressing their commitment to back the eventual Republican nominee, regardless of who that is.
“I’m pleased to announce that we have met all the criteria that the RNC set to be on the debate stage. We’ve met the polling criteria and now we’ve met the 40,000 individual donor criteria,” Hutchinson told CNN’s Kasie Hunt on “State of the Union.”
Hutchinson, a vocal critic of Trump, had pushed back against the pledge, saying he did not think it should be a requirement to participate in the debates. But he told Hunt on Sunday that he would sign it, saying that he’s “confident that Donald Trump’s not going to be the nominee.” A campaign spokesperson told CNN later Sunday that Hutchinson signed the pledge.
Hutchinson joins former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and South Carolina Gov. Tim Scott in qualifying for Wednesday’s showdown.
Trump also met the polling and fundraising thresholds, but is planning instead to sit for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The timing for the Carlson interview has yet to be determined, multiple sources familiar with his plans tell CNN, but it is expected to air around the same time as the debate.
The debate and the Carlson interview are expected to take place ahead of Trump’s surrender to authorities in Fulton County. The former president was charged in connection with a plot to subvert the 2020 election results in Georgia – his fourth indictment this year. Negotiations between Trump’s lawyers and District Attorney Fani Willis’ office are expected to continue this week, and the exact timing of a surrender remains unclear.
DeSantis, other GOP hopefuls prepare for Milwaukee
With Trump absent, DeSantis would be the top-polling candidate onstage Wednesday night – and he is preparing for an onslaught from rivals who are attempting to position themselves as the clear Trump alternative.
The Florida governor is prepared to be “the center of attacks,” according to a campaign memo obtained by CNN that lays out how DeSantis is getting ready for the debate stage.
The memo, sent by new campaign manager James Uthmeier to donors and supporters, argues the Republican primary is a “two-man race” between DeSantis and Trump.
The DeSantis campaign is “fully prepared” to be “on the receiving end of false, desperate charges from other candidates and the legacy media,” the memo states. Uthmeier writes that the first debate is other candidates’ “biggest chance yet to grab headlines by attacking the governor, so we know they will try their best.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign event in Newport, New Hampshire, on August 19, 2023.
Burgum described himself as the “least-known candidate” on the debate stage.
The North Dakota governor said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’ll have succeeded in the debate “if we get a chance to explain who we are, what we’re about and why we’re running.”
Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, said her town hall events have been her preparation for the first debate.
“Debate prep for me was 80 town halls I did in Iowa and New Hampshire, and we let anybody ask whatever question they wanted. You get hard questions. You have to give true answers and that is best debate prep I could hope for,” Haley said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Pence, meanwhile, said Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week” that he is “just going to be me” in Wednesday’s debate.
“I’ve had a little bit of experience with nationally televised debates, but it’s different with a group onstage. And look, I’m just going to be me,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been preparing for this first Republican presidential debate my whole life.”
Trump maintains dominant position
As the first debate nears, Trump is well ahead of his GOP rivals in both national and early-state polls.
A new CNN Poll of Polls on the race for the GOP nomination finds that Trump tops his closest rival by 40 points in an average of recent polls that meet CNN’s standards for reporting. Trump has 57% support to DeSantis’ 17%, Ramaswamy’s 6% and Pence’s 4%. Scott and Haley each have 3% support, and no other candidate tops 1%.
The new Poll of Polls comes as the latest CBS News poll of likely GOP primary voters finds that 72% say they are considering backing Trump. No other candidate is currently being considered by anywhere near as many voters (the next closest is DeSantis, whom 40% say they’re considering), and majorities say they are not even considering 8 of the 11 Trump rivals tested in the poll.
Despite Trump’s commanding lead, some 2024 Republican rivals and other influential figures within the party have predicted that his decision to bypass what have long been considered mandatory stops on the campaign trail will hurt the former president.
In an interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta on Saturday, Hutchinson called Trump’s decision to skip the debate a “mistake.”
“It looks to me like he’s just saying, ‘I’m more important than the debate. I’m more important than the party. I’m more important than presenting and defending my position for the American people.’ I think it’s a mistake on his part,” Hutchinson said.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Sunday she does not believe voters will give Trump a pass for skipping the Iowa State Fair events that candidates usually entertain.
Reynolds told “Fox News Sunday” that voters in her state “expect him to be here, they want to interact,” after Trump skipped events such as her “fair-side chats” and the Des Moines Register soapbox. (Still, even as he flouted traditions, he drew a massive crowd at the fair earlier this month.)
Pressure on Trump from some Republicans in Washington also built on Sunday, as Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump in 2021 at his second impeachment trial, described the case against Trump for allegedly mishandling classified documents as “almost a slam dunk” and said he thinks Trump should drop out of the 2024 presidential race.
“I think any Republican on that stage in Milwaukee will do a better job than Joe Biden. And so I want one of them to win. If former President Trump ends up getting the nomination, but cannot win a general, that means we will have four more years of policies which have led to very high inflation … and to many other things which I think have been deleterious to our country’s future,” Cassidy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
CNN’s Alayna Treene, Jennifer Agiesta, Kit Maher, Ebony Davis, Andrew Millman, Veronica Stracqualursi, Shawna Mizelle and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.