Questions are swirling around whether former President Trump will participate in the Republican primary debate in August.
Trump, who leads the crowded GOP primary pack by a large margin in most polls, doubts whether he will be on stage with the other candidates in August.
“I like to debate. Maybe I’m here because of the debates. I don’t mind it at all,” Trump told Fox News’ Bret Baier in an interview that aired earlier this week. “But if you’re 40 points up …. Why would I let these people shoot me ?”
Still, some Republicans believe Trump will be eager for the spotlight. It will also serve as an opportunity for him to be with his top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
“Given his past performances in the GOP debates, it’s hard to see how he could pass up an opportunity to connect with Republican primary voters,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear who else will hold the debate — scheduled to take place Aug. 23 in Milwaukee — besides Trump and DeSantis. To qualify, candidates must vote at least 1 percent in at least three national polls, or 1 percent in two national polls and one early state poll from both Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been one of Trump’s most outspoken critics in the Republican field, tried to get the former president to debate on Thursday.
“Trump says he doesn’t ‘think it’s fair’ for him to have to debate. Babies and losers say life isn’t fair. And so is Trump,” Christie tweeted. “Want to become President? Then go to the ring pal.”
Some Republicans have speculated that Trump may be reluctant to team up with the former New Jersey governor, who helped Trump prepare for his debates against President Biden in 2020.
“If Chris Christie isn’t on the debate stage, I think he’s more likely to debate,” said Greg Manz, who worked as a strategic communications adviser during Trump’s 2020 campaign.
“Christie is good and she knows it,” Manz said. “That’s why Christie is part of our debate prep team in 2020. Christie knows Trump’s style and his strategies and tactics because he’s the one who prepares him for what to do.”
Christie made this point when speaking to conservatives at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to the Majority Policy Conference in Washington on Friday, pointing out that during Trump’s debate preparation, he played Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Biden 2020.
“You can’t sleep thinking about that tonight,” Christie teased.
Some argue that Trump has some justification for not wanting the debate.
“I think the key here is, right now nobody outside of DeSantis is pulling more than six percent,” O’Connell said. “Why would you fight people who at this point really don’t have a chance to face you? The only one making noise about this is DeSantis and is anyone listening?
Additionally, Trump has a history of opposing precedent with little political damage.
“This is my 12th presidential campaign and I feel like the natural laws that govern the universe that existed before June of 2015 don’t always apply as clearly as they used to,” said Ralph Reed, an influential conservative and evangelical figure. “He did things and did things over and over that I was sure he wouldn’t get and he did.”
Reed pointed to the last GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses in 2016 that candidate Trump decided to skip. Trump announced he would boycott the debate amid tensions between him and Fox News host Megyn Kelly. The move was met with criticism, with many Republicans at the time arguing that Trump was depriving Iowa caucus-goers of their last chance to see him before the contests.
“I’m sure he made a mistake, but he got away with it,” Reed said.
Instead, the president’s campaign quickly put together an event to raise funds for veterans at Drake University in Des Moines. The Trump campaign said the event brought in $6 million for the Trump Foundation and that the proceeds will be given to 22 organizations. The gathering even featured visits from two of Trump’s low-polling campaign rivals, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
While Trump lost Iowa, he ended up sweeping the GOP primary.
The 2024 Republican presidential primary contenders, including Trump, will be on hand Friday and Saturday for the Faith and Freedom Coalition confab.
“Candidates do what they think is best for them. From his point of view, when he goes, they all take shots at him,” said Reed. “On the other hand, there’s a feeling where if you want to be the standard bearer and want to be nominated, you have to show up, which I think is why he’s coming here this weekend.”
However, Reed said he has “no idea” whether Trump will actually participate in the August debate.
During his sit-down with Baier earlier this week, Trump seemed more focused on the idea of getting President Biden on the debate stage.
“He and I really need to debate. That’s what I love,” said the former president.
There are also questions surrounding what a general election debate between Trump and Biden will look like if they face off for a second term. The two men met on the debate stage twice in 2020, although three debates were originally scheduled. The second forum was canceled after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 and refused to appear.
And fewer debates took place in last year’s midterm election debates, with candidates in some races meeting only once, and some debates not even happening at all. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs, for example, refused to debate her Republican opponent Kari Lake, citing Lake’s election denial. Hobbs went on to win that race.
“The future of big political debates is really in question,” O’Connell said.
But Republicans have no doubt that Trump will get his message across to voters in the GOP primary with or without a debate.
“He is not a wallflower. He’s going to go out there and do whatever he needs to do,” Reed said.
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