Trump keeps GOP guessing on first primary debate

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Questions are swirling around whether former President Trump will participate in August’s Republican primary debate.

Trump, who is leading the crowded GOP primary pack by a large margin in most polls, has been coy about whether he will be on stage with the other candidates come August.

“I like to debate. I probably am here because of debates. I don’t mind it at all,” Trump told Fox News’s Bret Baier in an interview that aired earlier this week. “But when you’re 40 points up …. Why would I let these people take shots at me?”

Yet some Republicans believe Trump will be itching for the spotlight. It will also serve as an opportunity for him to go toe to toe with his top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

“Given his previous performances at GOP debates, it’s hard to see how he would miss an opportunity to connect with Republican primary voters,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. 

Meanwhile, it’s unclear who will even make the debate — set to take place in Aug. 23 in Milwaukee — besides Trump and DeSantis. To qualify, candidates will have to be polling at a minimum of 1 percent in at least three national polls, or at 1 percent in two national polls and one early state poll from two of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is one of Trump’s most outspoken critics in the Republican field, tried to goad the former president into debating on Thursday. 

“Trump says he doesn’t ‘think it’s fair’ for him to have to debate. Crybabies and losers say life isn’t fair. And Trump is both,” Christie tweeted. “Want to be President? Then get in the ring pal.”

Some Republicans speculate that Trump might be hesitant to go toe to toe with the former New Jersey governor, who has helped Trump prep for his debates against President Biden in 2020.

“If Chris Christie wasn’t on the debate stage, I think he would be more likely to debate,” said Greg Manz, who worked as a strategic communications adviser during Trump’s 2020 campaign. 

“Christie’s good and he knows that,” Manz said. “That’s why Christie was a part of our debate prep team in 2020. Christie knows Trump’s style and his strategies and tactics because he was the one prepping him on what to do.” 

Christie made this point 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 prep, he played Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Biden 2020. 

“You won’t be able to sleep thinking about that one tonight,” Christie quipped.

Others argue that Trump has some justification in not wanting to debate.

“I think the key here is, right now no one outside of DeSantis is pulling above six percent,” O’Connell said. “Why would you go up against people that at this point honestly have zero chance of facing you? The only one who could make noise about this is DeSantis and is anyone really going to listen?” 

Plus, Trump has a history of defying precedent with little-to-no political damage.

“This is my 12th presidential campaign and I feel like the natural laws governing the universe that existed prior to June of 2015 don’t always seem to apply as crisply as they once did,” said Ralph Reed, an influential conservative and evangelical figure. “He did things and has done things repeatedly that I was sure he couldn’t get away with and he did.” 

Reed pointed to the last GOP debate before the Iowa caucuses in 2016 that then-candidate Trump decided to skip. Trump announced that he would boycott the debate amid tension between him and then-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 time to see him before the contests. 

“I was sure he was making 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 would be given to 22 organizations. The gathering even drew visits from two of Trump’s lower-polling campaign rivals, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. 

While Trump went on to lose Iowa, he ended up sweeping the GOP primary. 

The 2024 Republican presidential primary contenders, including Trump, were all on hand on Friday and Saturday for the Faith and Freedom Coalition confab.

“Candidates do what they think is best for them. From his standpoint, if he goes, they’re all going to take shots at him,” Reed said. “On the other hand, there is a sense in which if you want to be the standard bearer and want to be the nominee, you gotta show up, which I think is why he’s coming here this weekend.” 

However, Reed noted that he has “no idea” whether Trump will actually take part in August’s debate. 

During his sit-down with Baier earlier this week, Trump seemed much more focused on the idea of taking President Biden on the debate stage. 

“He and I have to definitely debate. That’s what I love,” the former president said. 

There are also questions surrounding what a general election debate between Trump and Biden would like if they do end up facing off for a second time. The two men met on the debate stage twice in 2020, though three debates were originally scheduled. The second forum was canceled after Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 and refused to appear virtually.

And fewer debates took place during last year’s midterm election debates, with candidates in some races only meeting once, and some debates not even taking place. Then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs, for example, refused to debate her Republican opponent Kari Lake, citing Lake’s election denialism. Hobbs went on to win that race.

“The future of major political debates is really in question,” O’Connell said. 

But there’s no doubt among Republicans that Trump will get his message across to GOP primaries voters with or without a debate. 

“He’s not a wallflower. He’ll get out there and do whatever he has to do,” Reed said. 

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