“He’ll play a role no matter what because he’s a front-runner,” MacCallum said in an interview. “It’s about finding that balance.”
Baier and MacCallum still have contingency plans if Trump changes his mind, though that is considered highly unlikely. Trump is planning to release a pre-taped interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson the same night. On Thursday, he’ll surrender to authorities in Fulton County.
Even without him sharing the spotlight at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, they expect Trump’s mounting legal problems, including the far-ranging Fulton County indictment filed last week, to significantly factor into the 9 p.m. debate.
“It’s a huge story,” MacCallum said. “In any debate environment you’re always going to make sure you’re hitting the news of the day. It’s really also a deciding factor in voters’ minds.”
Trump holds double-digit leads in early-voting states and national polls, and some show that his edge has grown with each indictment. An NBC News/Des Moines Register poll of Iowa released Monday, for instance, showed his lead increased in the days after the charges were filed.
For Trump’s rivals, the debate offers a chance to distinguish themselves in a crowded field without competing with the former president for airtime.
But that also brings challenges for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is bracing to be the “center of attacks” in a Trump-free debate.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was hoping to use his hard-nosed debate style to pummel Trump. He called the former president a “coward” for skipping the event.
“He’s afraid of me,” Christie said after a GOP conference in Atlanta, “and he’s afraid of defending his record.”
Each candidate also enters the showdown hoping for a breakout moment to propel their campaign past rivals. For many, it will be the biggest audience of their political careers.
“Something is going to change. I don’t know what it is, but one of those potential shifts could happen on Wednesday night,” MacCallum said. “The people on that stage all want that nomination, and the American public has shown us they’re interested in what they have to say.”