Republican primary candidates appear powerless against Trump’s rise

Rivals of the former U.S. president face off in the first debate as the possibility of changing the dynamics of the campaign become more and more remote

Fox News host Bret Baier, one of the moderators of the debate, recording a video for social media on Tuesday in Milwaukee outside the venue where the event will take place.JONATHAN ERNST (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

Fox News employees were working hard on Tuesday to get everything ready for the first debate of the Republican presidential primaries in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is the unofficial kick-off of the campaign. But even though the race has only just begun, it seems that one of the presidential hopefuls, Donald Trump, is almost at the finish line. Indeed, the former president has such a wide lead in the polls that he has decided he is above taking part in the debate. Meanwhile, his rivals look on helplessly, as one of the few opportunities to change the dynamics of the campaign vanishes before their eyes.

The Republican National Committee announced Monday night that eight candidates — apart from Trump — met the donor and polling qualifications (set by the Republican Party) to be on stage, amid protests from those who will remain on the sidelines. The debate is being held at the Fiserv Forum, the home stadium of Giannis Antetokoumpo’s basketball team the Milwaukee Bucks. The arena now features a giant poster announcing the debate, with the photos of Fox presenters Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who will be moderating the event. Nearby, only a few Trump supporters were seen on Tuesday, waving signs in support of the former president, despite the fact that he will not be attending. “I love Trump”; “We love Trump”, they repeated, refusing to answer any other questions, as if they had been ordered not to say anything else.

Trump supporters, this Tuesday, outside the Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee venue where the debate will be held.
Trump supporters, this Tuesday, outside the Fiserv Forum, the Milwaukee venue where the debate will be held.Morry Gash (AP)

The eight participants have agreed to sign a pledge that they will support whoever is nominated at the 2024 Republican National Convention, which will take place in Milwaukee in June next year. Milwaukee is the most important town in Wisconsin, a swing state that can tip the balance in next year’s November 5 elections.

With his absence, Trump intends to adopt a position of superiority with respect to his rivals. Traditionally, it is assumed that incumbent presidents running for reelection will be nominated, and they don’t debate with those who challenge them. When Trump was president, he was nominated to great acclaim in 2020, and President Joe Biden is also not expected to face his rather marginal Democratic rivals. And marginal is exactly what Trump thinks of the eight Republican candidates who will debate in his looming shadow. The former president’s attitude is not surprising, given he is polling at 52.5%, according to the average of the large FiveThirtyEight surveys. That’s more than the other eight candidates combined. With so many runners in the race, the anti-Trump vote is diluted, and this works to the advantage of the former president.

What’s more, Trump’s popularity is so high among the Republican base — the people who vote in the primaries — that his rivals have found themselves on a tightrope, trying to find a balance between differentiating themselves from Trump and not upsetting his supporters.

Most of the candidates have been campaigning persistently in the first states to vote in the Republican primaries: Iowa, which opens the primaries with its caucus on January 15, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But with a few exceptions — principally former vice president Mike Pence and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — most of the presidential hopefuls are not well-known on a national level. For them, the Fox debate is an opportunity to be heard by the entire country.

DeSantis, from promise to disaster

With Trump removed from the debate, much of the focus will be on DeSantis, who is polling second. But so far, his campaign has been a disaster. At the midterm elections last November, DeSantis was overwhelmingly re-elected as governor of Florida, while Trump’s candidates lost to their Democratic rivals. Back then, DeSantis was praised as the great Republican promise, but his own mistakes, in addition to Trump’s attacks, have prevented him from gaining more ground. In fact, support for the governor has fallen since he entered the race. He is now polling at only 15.2%, more than 37 points behind Trump.

DeSantis needs to shine in Wednesday’s debate, but as if he wasn’t starting off at a disadvantage, The New York Times recently published his campaign strategy documents, including a memo with recommendations for the debate: “1. Attack Joe Biden and the media 3-5 times. 2. State GRD’s [Governor Ron DeSantis] positive vision 2-3 times. 3. Hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response. 4. Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”

Trump’s absence is likely to mean the debate will be watched by a smaller audience, although Fox News is considering broadcasting footage of Trump’s past statements to make it appear that he is present to a degree. The former president plans to counterprogram the debate with an interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson, who has been posting his most recent interviews with Trump on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter.

Despite everything, Wednesday’s event — which Fox has turned into a spectacular, with snippets set to go viral on social media — continues to be the best opportunity for candidates to try to shake up the campaign. To do this, however, some strategists recommend the candidates take risks. If DeSantis and the other presidential hopefuls fail to convincingly challenge Trump’s ability to win against Biden in 2024, it will be hard for the campaign to move in a different direction.

The eight participants in the debate. From left to right, top, Tim Scott; Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Below, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson.AP

Joining DeSantis and Pence in the debate is Vivek Ramaswamy, a billionaire biotech entrepreneur born to Indian parents who is a vocal critic of so-called woke ideology. The conservative rising star, who has fashioned himself as a kind of millennial Trump, has jumped in the polls to 9.3%. The debate will also include Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, (polling at 3.5%); Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey (also at 3.5%); Tim Scott, the only Black Republican senator (3.4%); Asa Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas (0.7%) and Doug Burgum, the governor of North Dakota (0.4%).

Of the eight candidates, the fiercest critics of Trump are Christie, who has called the former president a “coward” for not attending the debate, and Hutchinson, who openly attacked him at a recent campaign rally in Iowa: “Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again [...] Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison.”

Trump will travel to Atlanta this Thursday to be arraigned for his fourth indictment, in this case, for trying to subvert the 2020 election result in the state of Georgia. He will have to pay bail, which the judge has set at $200,000. But not even the multiple criminal investigations he is facing have been able to erode Trump’s popularity among his supporters.

On the contrary, with each indictment, Trump has been able to raise more money and gain more support. In the eyes of the Republican base, Trump is not a suspected criminal, but a victim — indeed, a martyr — of alleged political persecution aimed at stopping him from returning to the White House. In Trump’s words, he’s a victim of a “witch hunt.” It’s a claim that Trump’s Republican rivals, save for a few exceptions, dare to question. These criminal cases could appear to be Trump’s weak spot, but in the end, they shield him from criticism.

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