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August 14, 2023

Sizing Up the GOP’s First Debate

The question of whether Donald Trump will make a showing may create more drama than the debate itself.

Will he or won’t he? That’s the question currently dominating the headlines a little over a week out from the first Republican presidential primary debate to be held August 23 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Donald Trump continues to enjoy a sizable lead in the polls over the rest of the Republican field, a lead he has continuously touted as insurmountable. History suggests he’s right. That explains his coyness over confirming one way or the other whether he’ll show up on the debate stage. Trump recently teased that he had made a decision but said he would wait to make it known.

At issue for Trump is a support pledge the Republican National Committee is requiring in an effort to ensure party unity. The apparent fear is a splintering of the party between the Never-Trumpers and the Only-Trumpers. That rift seems almost inevitable yet again.

“Why would I sign a pledge?” Trump asked. “There are people on there that I wouldn’t have. … They want you to sign a pledge, but I can name three or four people that I wouldn’t support for president. … So right there, there’s a problem.”

One of the candidates Trump is likely referencing is former New Jersey Governor and one-time Trump supporter Chris Christie. He has been the most vocal critic of Trump, and regarding the pledge Christie himself hedged, “I’ll take the pledge in 2024 just as seriously as Donald Trump took the pledge in 2016.” Trump refused to sign a party candidate support pledge back in 2016.

Back to the debate, the question of value versus harm for Trump appears to be his only concern. He swatted away any suggestion that avoiding the debate was a sign of cowardice, suggesting that Christie and his former vice president Mike Pence would accuse him of it.

“I did [a] CNN town hall — that was about as hostile as you can do,” Trump boasted. “I hear I did very well because, you know, I did so well that they fired the head of CNN over that. But no, it’s not a question of guts; it’s a question of intelligence. … But we’ll let people know next week.”

If Trump is a no-show, the other candidates will have to navigate the difficult balance of criticizing Trump while also attacking Joe Biden and making a case for themselves. In a Trump-less debate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will likely become the top target. Can he further distance himself from the crowd and make up ground on Trump?

If Trump does take the debate stage, it immediately makes him the big target, perhaps giving more of an opportunity to other candidates to make up ground than it does to further his own campaign.

Maybe it’s time for all the GOP candidates to dust off Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” After all, we want to know who will be the best candidate to undo what will be four years of tremendous damage by Joe Biden, not who can throw the most rhetorical bombs at fellow Republicans.

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