On Wednesday night, the top Republican presidential candidates will descend on Milwaukee for the first primary debate, with one notable exception: former president and current frontrunner for the nomination Donald Trump.
Despite facing four indictments, or perhaps because of them, the twice-impeached former president holds a wide lead in his attempt to face President Joe Biden in 2024. That means that most of the Republican candidates will aim their fire at the candidate currently in second place: Florida Gov Ron DeSantis.
The Independent consulted with top Republican campaign veterans about what they are watching during tonight’s debate. Here are five things to keep an eye on.
All eyes on DeSantis
Last year, Mr DeSantis looked to be the GOP golden boy and an alternative to Mr Trump. But a bungled rollout on X, formerly known as Twitter, disappointing fundraising numbers and staff layoffs alongside continued attacks from Mr Trump have led Mr DeSantis’s poll numbers to decline. Last week, he faced another embarrassment when The New York Times reported that Never Back Down, a super PAC that supports the governor, released a memo advising Mr DeSantis to defend Mr Trump while attacking businessman and gadfly candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. That means Mr DeSantis will be in the hot seat, Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, told The Independent in an email.
“How does he do and how does he react to attacks from other candidates and the memo leak?” he said. “Can he, or anyone, hit a home run without Trump present?”
Gunner Ramer, the political director at the Republican Accountability Project, said that Mr DeSantis has to show he can do more than focus on fighting “wokeness.”
“But you know he takes it a step too far,” he told The Independent. “So I think what someone like DeSantis needs to do tonight is re-align to this pitch about electability.”
At the same time, Kevin Sheridan, who worked in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign as a communications director for his running mate Paul Ryan, said it presents an opportunity for Mr DeSantis.
“Trump has dropped $20M on him calling him sanctimonious and unlikeable,” he said in an email. “If he's none of those things and looks calm, appealing, and in control, he has a chance to quiet his donors and become the clear alternative to Trump that half the party wants.”
Trump’s absence and arrest
Without a doubt, the biggest factor will be who is not in attendance following Mr Trump’s decision to skip the event. Many Republicans who will appear on the stage have elected to defend Mr Trump amid his continued indictments. Others, such as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, have made criticising Mr Trump hallmarks of their campaign. But Mr Trump’s decision not to attend scrambles Republican strategies.
“I've always looked at August 23, and said, Hey, this is an event that can take place and, you know, change the dynamics within this primary contests,” Mr Ramer said. “But I think that with Trump not on the debate stage, it changes how much it can affect the race.”
Inevitably, debate moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will ask the candidates about Mr Trump’s multiple legal troubles. This could in turn lead some candidates to talk about whether the former president can actually beat Mr Biden.
Of course, the next day, Mr Trump will likely eclipse any viral moments when he is arrested at the jail in Fulton County, Georgia for his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. That could likely make it harder for Republicans to have a moment they want.
“Will anyone create an electric moment that can outlast the coming Trump arrest news cycle,” Mr Sheridan said in an email.
Chris Christie’s “bumper car” style of debating
The former New Jersey governor is perhaps the biggest wild card in the debate. The former ally-turned-critic of Mr Trump has risen in the polls, particularly in New Hampshire, in recent weeks. Mr Christie has a history of using debates to cut fellow Republicans down to size, most notably in 2016 when he attacked Sen Marco Rubio (R-FL) for his robotic delivery of the same canned debate line. The attack wounded Mr Rubio so badly that he tweeted about it in June and pushed back on the idea that Mr Christie “ended” his campaign.
Mr Christie has every incentive to attack Mr DeSantis, his closest competitor as it gives him an opportunity to move into second place in some polls and take aim at Mr Trump.
“Chris Christie does very well in multi-candidate debates, playing a bumper car that will go after anyone and everyone,” Mr Heye said. “Does he do that here and what effect does that have?”
The leaked Never Back Down memo offered Mr DeSantis a response to Mr Christie’s critiques of Mr Trump. But with that memo leaking, Mr Christie has an opportunity to say that Mr DeSantis cannot come up with a response himself.
Mr Sheridan said he is wondering “Will Chris Christie nuke another candidate or aim his fire at Trump?”
Do donors flock to someone else?
Mr DeSantis’s lacklustre performance has meant that many Republican donors are looking elsewhere for a non-Trump alternative given their fear about Mr Trump winning the nomination. Eric Levine, a Republican donor based in New York, said he is hoping to see an alternative break out.
“I'm really hoping that somebody distinguishes themselves and becomes the Trump alternative,” he told The Independent in an interview on Monday, specifically saying that former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and Sen Tim Scott (R-SC) have an opportunity. “And you know, I think Tim Scott's got a really good shot at doing that. I think actually the best shot of anyone on that stage perhaps, you know, Nikki Haley.”
Conversely, he panned Mr Ramaswamy, saying his views on foreign policy are “way outside the mainstream and reflect an ignorance of how the world works.”
How Democrats respond
The debate will take place in Wisconsin, a must-win state for both Democrats and Mr Biden. Mr Trump shocked the world when he became the first Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984 to win the Badger State in 2016 only for Mr Biden to win it in 2020. Last year, Republican Sen Ron Johnson narrowly beat Mandela Barnes to win a third term but Democratic Gov Tony Evers won re-election as well largely by virtue of Mr Trump endorsing a candidate with plenty of baggage. In a press conference before the debate, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler, arguably one of the most effective state party leaders, told reporters their plan.
“We're anticipating a debate tonight, where candidates are leapfrogging each other to the most extreme fringes of ultra-Maga-ism,” he said. “And yet, when you look at the record in the state of Wisconsin, over and over Wisconsin voters reject Maga extremism.”
Specifically, he pointed to how earlier this year, Democrats flipped the state’s supreme court, largely by virtue of making the election a referendum on abortion.
Similarly, Mr Biden will run an ad featuring a female cement worker touting his economic accomplishments. The campaign said the ad would serve as its first major investment in African-American and Hispanic media. Mr Biden has credited Black voters with his political victories in the past, while he has struggled to win over Hispanic voters.
-Andrew Feinberg contributed reporting from Wisconsin