MILWAUKEE – The Republican White House hopefuls prepared to do battle in the first debate of the 2024 primary contest on Wednesday – with Donald Trump (picture) set to upstage his rivals despite his decision not to show up.
Five months ahead of the start of primary elections to choose the party’s flagbearer, the runaway frontrunner’s grassroots support is as strong as ever, but numerous criminal cases are overshadowing his comeback bid.
The 77-year-old former president, who is rarely out of the headlines, revealed on Sunday he would be skipping the event in the midwestern city of Milwaukee, wary of sharing the limelight with lower-polling rivals.
The following day he plans to turn himself in to the county jail in Atlanta over his latest indictment, ensuring a spectacle that could dash every other candidates’ hopes of profile-boosting coverage.
“Can you believe it? I’ll be going to Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday to be ARRESTED by a Radical Left District Attorney, Fani Willis, who is overseeing one of the greatest Murder and Violent Crime DISASTERS in American History,” Trump posted on social media.
Trump also plans to plant himself firmly center stage on the evening of the debate itself with a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson.
The session with Carlson, a hardline right-winger that debate hosts Fox News fired earlier this year, is expected to air as the debate is happening.
90-plus felony counts
And while he might be absent from the podium itself, Trump will be ripe for broadsides from opponents over his mounting legal troubles, including four upcoming criminal trials and more than 90 felony counts.
His surrender in Atlanta comes in the wake of his indictment last week over an alleged conspiracy to steal the 2020 election, when he was ordered to turn himself in by noon (1700 GMT) on Friday.
“Obviously, his legal issues are affecting this race,” Fox News host Bret Baier, who will be moderating, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“All these candidates have been asked non-stop about what’s happening in courtrooms around the country. So he’ll be a part of this debate whether he’s there or not.”
Eight other candidates have qualified, including state governors Ron DeSantis and Doug Burgum, former vice president Mike Pence, Trump’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie are threatening DeSantis’s runner-up spot in early nominating states Iowa and New Hampshire, and will be looking for openings to attack him.
While Trump dominates the field, polling well above his opponents, some allies worry that a no-show could give his rivals a chance to create a viral moment and gain momentum.
‘Everybody should debate’
They point out that he lost Iowa to Texas senator Ted Cruz in 2016 after skipping a debate.
Meanwhile the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down offered a window into the debate strategy that may be adopted by the governor, who is looking for a jolt to reverse slipping poll numbers.
In a two-page memo posted online, it encouraged him to blast President Joe Biden, defend Trump from attacks by Christie and call surging political newcomer Ramaswamy “fake.”
“Everybody should debate. Everybody has a responsibility to earn people’s votes. Nobody is entitled to anything in this world, least of all the Republican nomination for president,” DeSantis told Fox News on Monday when asked about Trump.
Candidates were informed ahead of the debate that they were required to pledge to “honor the will of the primary voters” and support the eventual nominee as a condition of taking part.
It is unclear how such a commitment could be enforced, however, and Christie was clear that he would sign but would treat it “as seriously as Donald Trump took it in 2016.”
Trump, who refused to sign, has already confirmed he plans to skip the second debate in California on September 27, over his enmity for its host, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. – AFP / pic TMR FILE