As the first Republican presidential debate approaches, many may wonder how the various hopefuls are getting ready—and how the American people will receive their pitches against the backdrop of the absence of former president Donald J. Trump.
In a series of interviews, campaign representatives and knowledgeable analysts shared insights on the coming spectacle.
DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and ‘Trump in Absentia’
Last week, a debate memo published on the website of a firm linked to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis offered some initial clues as to what observers should expect at the event, which will take place in Milwaukee on Aug. 23.
The memo suggested Mr. DeSantis could “hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response.”
“Take a sledge-hammer to Vivek Ramaswamy: ‘Fake Vivek’ Or ‘Vivek the Fake,'” it reads.
In addition, it advises him to attack both President Joe Biden and the media repeatedly and “defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack.”
President Trump confirmed he would not participate in the Aug. 23 debate in an Aug. 20 post on his Truth Social platform.
The New York Times first reported that an interview of President Trump by Tucker Carlson would run opposite the debate. Mr. Carlson’s new online show has run on X, formerly Twitter. His account can be reached here.
The Trump-less candidate gabfest will air on Fox News, the network that recently fired Mr. Carlson.
When asked by The Epoch Times about Mr. Christie’s debate strategy, the executive director of the former New Jersey governor’s PAC, Tell It Like It Is, shared a one-sentence “Memoranda” email: “Be yourself, and tell it like it is.”
Mr. DeSantis reacted to the leaked debate memo in recent comments to Fox News, stating that it was not his document and that he had not reviewed it.
“It’s just something that we have and put off to the side,” he said.
“I know from the military when you’re over the target, that’s when you’re taking flak. And if you look really in the last six to nine months, I’ve been more attacked than anybody else,” Mr. DeSantis added.
Reached by The Epoch Times, a spokesperson for Mr. DeSantis’s campaign shared messaging guidance from DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier.
“We are fully prepared for Governor DeSantis to be the center of attacks,” Mr. Uthmeier’s email reads, predicting that Mr. DeSantis’s rivals will seek to “grab headlines by attacking the governor.”
“We all know why our competitors have to go down this road: because this is a two-man race for the Republican nomination between Governor DeSantis and Donald Trump,” it adds.
“Governor DeSantis’ objective in this debate will be to lay out his vision to beat Joe Biden, reverse American decline, and revive the American Dream,” the messaging email continues.
The spokesperson declined to provide specific details about how Mr. DeSantis is preparing—for example, whether or not he is staging mock debates.
CNN reported former Vice President Mike Pence has held multiple mock debates, including one with a stand-in for President Trump and one without a proxy Trump.
The Pence campaign did not respond to requests for comment from The Epoch Times.
When asked how Mr. Ramaswamy is preparing for the Aug. 23 debate, a spokesperson for his campaign directed The Epoch Times to a 45-second clip the candidate recorded with ABC News’ Kelsey Walsh.
Mr. Ramaswamy told Ms. Walsh he didn’t want to be “overly prepared.”
He said the event would be his “first time ever” participating in such a primary debate, setting him apart from his competitors.
“It’ll be something of a warmup for me,” Mr. Ramaswamy added.
The millennial entrepreneur and anti-woke investor generated a little more pre-debate publicity on Aug. 21, posting an RFK, Jr.-style video of himself playing tennis shirtless, with the caption, “Three solid hours of debate prep this morning.”
Trump’s ‘Smart Move’
Mr. Trump’s absence from Wednesday’s debate, and prospective appearance with Mr. Carlson on another medium, has elicited a range of responses.
While Mr. Christie accused his competitor of “running scared,” a Ramaswamy’s campaign representative told The Epoch Times that the former president “should do whatever he wants!”
“Having counter-programming during the debate is a smart move by both Carlson and Trump since it will help distract from the debate and attract attention, which is their goal,” said Kevin Tober, a news analyst with the Media Research Center, in an email interview with The Epoch Times.
“We can expect Trump’s absence to loom large over the debate. Many of the questions, if not most, will end up having to do with him or about him,” Mr. Tober predicted.
Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said he thinks Mr. Trump will ultimately “overshadow everything the seven candidates on the stage do, and thus will undermine the ability of all of them to achieve their respective goals due to the fewer number of eyeballs watching the debate and the less intense media coverage of the debate.”
“At the end of the day, the Republican candidate Democrats most want to face in 2024 is Donald Trump, since they believe Biden can beat Trump but would have a much more difficult time beating DeSantis, Scott, Haley, etc.” Mr. Jones told The Epoch Times via email.
Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told The Epoch Times that Mr. Trump’s rivals for the presidential slot are in a delicate position.
“Not only do you attack Trump at your own peril of being retaliated against by Trump himself, but even more importantly for the other candidates is trying to court Trump voters,” Mr. Head said in a telephone interview.
Both Mr. Tober and Mr. Jones expect Mr. DeSantis to be the most mercilessly scrutinized candidate on stage.
“Due to some recent missteps from the DeSantis campaign, you can expect some tough questions to come his way. That’s expected, though, since he’s the leading candidate among those participating,” Mr. Tober said.
Mr. Jones said he anticipates Mr. DeSantis “will try to set himself clearly apart as the only viable option to Trump without being seen as overtly anti-Trump.”
He suggested that Mr. DeSantis’s rivals will go after the governor “with the goal of freeing up his donors and voters”—a prediction in line with what other insiders have told The Epoch Times about the intra-GOP scramble for the presidential nomination.
“The lane is for Trump and a non-Trump candidate. That’s an oversimplification, but sometimes a simple story is right,” Daron Shaw, a presidential campaign veteran and professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Epoch Times in a July interview.
According to Mr. Head, a very big question will loom over the debate: “Which candidate can establish themselves as the Trump alternative?”
He said he’s paying close attention to which candidates succeed in connecting with the electorate.
That holds true even for candidates who have strong records on the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s central issues—parental rights, religious liberty, and abortion.
While he argued that Mr. Pence’s “political and policy backgrounds could hardly be any stronger” for religious voters, he acknowledged that there is a “personality equation” as well.
‘Not Afraid of Hard Questions’
Other 2024 hopefuls shared some details about what to expect in Milwaukee with The Epoch Times.
An advisor to former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told The Epoch Times that the candidate has “been preparing for six months on the campaign trail answering unscripted questions from voters across New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina.”
“She’s not afraid of the hard questions. She’ll always fight for what she believes in,” the advisor added.
A campaign spokesperson for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told The Epoch Times that the presidential hopeful “will share his positive, conservative message on the debate stage in Milwaukee.”
“This debate is another opportunity to connect with millions of voters across the country and show why Tim has faith in America and why he is the strongest candidate to beat Joe Biden,” the spokesperson continued.
The Epoch Times contacted the presidential campaign of North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. The campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Jackson Richman contributed to this report