Trump’s rivals hope for a breakout moment in first GOP debate

MILWAUKEE — Some Donald Trump rivals have tiptoed around the former president’s legal peril. Others have been outspoken defenders. A few say his effort to overturn the 2020 election will guarantee a Democratic victory next year.

Trump won’t be on the stage for Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee, organized by the Republican National Committee and hosted by Fox News. But the two-hour showdown will present his opponents with a moment before millions of viewers to prove they’re the best choice to take on President Joe Biden next year.

The 91 charges leveled against Trump in four jurisdictions, including the sprawling indictment unveiled last week in Fulton County, will be inescapable. Fox anchor Martha MacCallum, a moderator of the debate, said candidates won’t be able to avoid questions about the legal charges.

“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.”

Several hopefuls will prefer to talk about anything but the indictments, wary of alienating the former president’s supporters and playing into his narrative of a corrupt justice system bent on stopping his comeback. Others see the felony charges as a crystallizing moment in the campaign.

“If I had his record, I’d be nervous about showing up, too,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in Atlanta this weekend. “By Wednesday, he’s going to be out on bail in four jurisdictions. When are we going to stop thinking that’s normal?”

Trump won’t be out of mind. He’s set to release a pre-recorded interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson as his rivals scrap with one another. And hours after the contenders leave the stage, the former president is set to surrender to authorities at the Fulton County Jail.

He’ll also have supporters in Milwaukee to promote his campaign, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome.

Here’s what to watch:

Advisers to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expect the other seven contenders who will be on the stage at Wednesday night's GOP debate to “dog-pile on Ron” by attacking him to generate buzz and attract donors. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

DeSantis pile-on

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to prove the primary is a two-man race, even though he’s polling a distant second to Trump, his campaign has endured a string of shakeups, donors are worried and he’s facing increasing pressure from White House wannabes closer to the bottom of the pack.

DeSantis advisers expect the other seven contenders to try to turn the debate into a “dog-pile on Ron” by attacking the governor to generate buzz and attract donors. His campaign indicated he may not punch back but will instead focus on electability and “his vision to beat Joe Biden.”

But that won’t stop lesser-polling candidates such as Christie and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy from trying to make up ground against the Florida governor. Christie said DeSantis should “get the hell out of the race” if he defends Trump. Ramaswamy called him “another career politician.”

The debate could be an inflection point for DeSantis, who is facing pressure from both donors and activists to prove he’s a viable 2024 contender.

The Pence factor

Former Vice President Mike Pence was banking on a face-off with his former political boss to gain traction, telling an audience in Atlanta that he’s “debated Donald Trump a thousand times — just not in front of the cameras.”

Without Trump on stage, Pence must seek other ways to differentiate himself from other conservatives, including some who contend he betrayed the former president when he refused to illegally overturn Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021.

Stuck in single digits in the polls, Pence has recently taken an edgier approach. He seconded Gov. Brian Kemp’s recent rebuke of Trump’s lies about a “rigged” election, saying the 2020 vote “was not stolen.” And he now says Trump is no longer fit for office.

“Anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president,” he said.

Breakthrough moments?

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott hasn’t successfully wooed great numbers of Republicans to his punchy yet optimistic vision for the GOP future and refusal to mix it up with his rivals. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s attempt to carve out a lane of her own has faltered.

The two South Carolinians have different approaches as they try to rise above the field and convince donors they have a chance to win. Scott has frequently ducked chances to criticize Trump and other opponents, emphasizing the “happy” part of the “happy warrior” label he proudly wears.

He previewed his debate message in Atlanta this weekend, promising to help break the “Potomac fever” while avoiding any mention of Trump or other opponents.

“We elected the wrong guy,” Scott said. “It’s time to fire Joe Biden.”

Haley, meanwhile, may use the spotlight to showcase her foreign policy experience. She offered a hint of that strategy when she assailed Ramaswamy for saying he would roll back U.S. military aid to Israel.

“Vivek Ramaswamy is completely wrong to call for ending America’s special bond with Israel,” she said.

Maybe their one best shot

The little-known contenders are seeking big, splashy moments to keep their campaigns afloat.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum only qualified for the debate because he promised $20 gift cards to donors who helped him meet a crucial threshold. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson promised supporters he’d take on Trump if he made it to the debate stage.

It’s not lost on either of them that the debate is their first — and perhaps only — chance to make a lasting impression on millions of voters. The RNC plans to impose stricter criteria to qualify for the Sept. 27 debate in California that includes registering at least 3% in key polls.

“We’re in a very different spot than everyone else on the stage because virtually everyone else has got 100% name recognition, and we’re a long way from that,” Burgum said in a recent Politico podcast. “We’re at the other end of that spectrum.”



First Republican candidate debate: How to watch

Top Republican candidates for president, minus Donald Trump, meet in their their first debate Wednesday in Milwaukee.

The debate at Fiserv Forum will be moderated by Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum and will be broadcast on Fox News and Fox News Audio from 9-11 p.m. Fox Nation and Rumble will also offer a livestream.

Trump, the frontrunner who faces criminal charges in four separate cases, including an indictment in Fulton County, has said he will not attend.

The candidates expected to participate, according to the Republican National Committee, include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

How to follow debate coverage from the AJC

Journalist Greg Bluestein will cover the debate in Milwaukee, with additional Atlanta-based coverage by journalist David Wickert and other members of the political news staff. AJC will offer coverage on all of its platforms, including, the AJC app and print and ePaper editions.

AJC will release a post-debate episode of the Politically Georgia podcast early Thursday. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

On social media: Follow updates on Twitter from @ajc, Greg Bluestein and David Wickert; and @AJCNews on Instagram.

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