DES MOINES, Iowa – He says he won't sign the pledge required to participate, but former President Donald Trump's Republican rivals are actively preparing as if he will be onstage for the GOP's first 2024 presidential debate next week.
Former Vice President Mike Pence is hosting mock debate sessions with someone playing the part of the former president. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been participating in weekly debate prep sessions for several weeks with an eye toward drawing clear contrasts with Trump. And Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, is planning to show she can stand up to bullies.
In all, eight Republican candidates have met the Republican National Committee's fundraising and polling thresholds required to qualify for the debate next Wednesday, Aug. 23, hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee. Trump is among them, although he has said publicly and privately that he's leaning against participating given his big lead in national polls and concerns about the Fox moderators.
Still, the former reality television star, who is a master at shaping media coverage, has yet to rule it out completely.
He is consumed this week with yet another criminal indictment, this one in Georgia, where prosecutors on Monday used a statute normally associated with mobsters to accuse Trump, lawyers and other aides of a “criminal enterprise” to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. Even before the latest legal drama, he gave himself a way out of the debate last week when he told Fox News he would not sign a pledge, required of all participants, to support the GOP's eventual nominee.
Republican officials in and around rival campaigns believe Trump will end up on the debate stage regardless of the drama in the days leading up to the high-stakes affair.
“You've got to prepare for two contingencies: one where Trump shows up and one where he doesn't. It makes it more complicated,” said Republican strategist Lanhee Chen, who has been in touch with multiple campaigns about their debate preparations. “For many voters, this will be their first introduction to the candidates. ... What they do on this one night may be more substantial than anything else they’ve done.”
Pence has participated in roughly a half-dozen formal debate prep sessions to date, including at least one planned for this week in which a campaign aide previously close to Trump is playing the part of the former president, according to a Pence adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
Campaigning in Iowa over the weekend, Pence indicated he was prepared to confront Trump — and the rest of the large GOP field — on several issues, including abortion. Trump and DeSantis in particular have refused to say whether they would support a federal abortion ban, which Pence has promised to sign if given the chance.
The adviser said Pence is also prepared to stand up to Trump for his role on Jan. 6, 2021 — Pence has accused Trump of endangering his family in the attack on the U.S. Capitol — although Pence's team doesn't expect the Fox moderators to press debate participants on the issue.
“I’ve debated Donald Trump a thousand times. Just never with the cameras on,” Pence said as he campaigned at the Iowa State Fair over the weekend.
And while Trump will be a major debate focus — whether he's there or not — several campaigns believe DeSantis may have the most to lose given his apparent status as Trump's strongest rival. DeSantis' team has done little to lower expectations, despite his struggle on the debate stage in Florida before last fall's reelection.
The DeSantis campaign is preparing him for nonstop attacks from Trump and the rest of the candidates, according to people familiar with DeSantis’ planning who were granted anonymity to discuss strategy. The Florida governor is ready to highlight contrasts with Trump as well.
DeSantis has been participating in debate-related question and answer sessions at least once a week, having brought in experienced debate strategist Brett O'Donnell to assist.
While preparing for Trump to be on stage, the DeSantis campaign sees it as a win-win situation either way. If Trump shows up, DeSantis' team believes the Florida governor will have a significant opportunity to show contrasts with Trump that's better than anything he's tried using campaign ads or social media posts. And if Trump declines to participate, the campaign feels he'll look weak.
Trump's critics are quick to note that the former president lost support in 2016 after skipping the final presidential debate before voting began and ultimately finished second in the Iowa caucuses.
“Regardless of whether or not Donald Trump is afraid to debate, Ron DeSantis is looking forward to being onstage in Milwaukee talking about his plans to beat Joe Biden, reverse the decline in our nation and revive America’s future,” said DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo.
While much of the attention in the Republican Party's crowded presidential primary has gone to Trump and DeSantis, others are eyeing the nationally televised event as a prime opportunity to break out.
Haley's team acknowledges she isn't universally known, despite a resume that features two terms as South Carolina governor and a role in Trump's cabinet. An adviser, granted anonymity to discuss strategy, said the primary goal in her debate preparation has been to project that “Nikki is tough, she's going to stand up for America and she's going to stand up to bullies.”
Haley made no mention of plans to go on the attack while speaking to reporters in Iowa over the weekend, but she did explain why she showed up to the state fair in a shirt that read, “Underestimate me, that’ll be fun.”
“This has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember,” Haley said. “I’ve been underestimated in everything I’ve ever done, but it’s a blessing because it makes me scrappy. No one’s going to outwork me in this race. No one’s going to outsmart me in this race. We have a country to save, and I’m determined to do it.”
Conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old political newcomer, is doing virtually no formal debate prep as he pursues a whirlwind campaign schedule, according to a senior adviser granted anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. The adviser said he'll spend the day before the debate playing tennis and spending time with family.
Ramaswamy's team says his "anti-woke" message won't change whether Trump is onstage or not.
“I will be unafraid to draw policy contrasts,” Ramaswamy said in Iowa. “But I’m not personally attacking anybody in this race. Now, believe me, I’m somebody who holds my ground. ... So if somebody’s going to come for me, come at your own peril. But I’m not in this race to take somebody else down. I’m in this race to lead us to our vision of what it means to be American.”
To appear onstage, Trump must commit at least 48 hours before the Wednesday evening debate, according to criteria outlined by the Republican National Committee. The criteria also requires participants to sign a pledge promising to support the party's ultimate nominee.
“I wouldn’t sign the pledge,” Trump said on Fox News last week. “They want you to sign a pledge, but I can name three or four people that I wouldn’t support for president. So right there, there’s a problem.”
Meanwhile, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former Trump ally turned fierce Trump critic, has said Trump is “a coward” if he skips the debate.
Christie's allies are hoping Trump does attend, acknowledging that Christie's anti-Trump message would be much more powerful if he can look his opponent in the eyes.
“Obviously, one would prefer that Trump was on the stage. But if not, Trump’s going to have to listen to two hours of people criticizing and critiquing, not only the fact that he didn’t show up, but his failures while in office,” said longtime Christie ally Bill Palatucci. “Chris has always said Trump will be there."
Peoples reported from New York. AP writers Michelle L. Price and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.