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GOP presidential candidates prepare for first debate with or without Trump

<i>Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>The GOP’s first 2024 debate is next week in Milwaukee.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
The GOP’s first 2024 debate is next week in Milwaukee.

By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — A debate whisperer to collegiate champions and past presidential nominees is coaching Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Former Vice President Mike Pence is practicing with and without someone acting his onetime running mate. And South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s campaign manager wants him to “have fun” onstage.

The GOP’s first 2024 debate is next week in Milwaukee with eight candidates so far meeting the Republican National Committee’s polling and donor requirements to qualify. And while several campaigns told CNN they have spent weeks preparing, the 800-pound gorilla in the room will be the person who may not be there at all.

It’s been nearly eight years since a Republican has stood on a debate stage alongside Donald Trump and if the former president sticks to past declarations – and listens to recommendations of top advisers – the current crop of contenders will have to continue to wait for a turn.

Multiple sources familiar with Trump’s plans told CNN he is planning to skip Wednesday’s debate and is instead expected to sit for an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. His advisers continue to say, however, that he could ultimately change his mind and decide at the 11th hour to attend the debate.

The memory of Trump’s showmanship in past performances – when he insulted moderators, goaded opponents into schoolyard fights and soaked up much of the spotlight – has forced the rest of the GOP field to prepare for all manner of scenarios when it comes to the former president. And his mounting legal troubles and fixation on the 2020 election are likely to loom regardless of whether he shows up. Trump has until next Friday – two days after the debate – to voluntarily surrender in Fulton County, Georgia, on charges related to the fourth indictment he faces.

“Probably the No. 1 goal of these candidates on the debate stage is practicing the art of pivoting and shifting the conversation to what voters are really concerned about. They’re not concerned about the grievances of the past,” said GOP communications strategist Alice Stewart, a veteran of several past presidential campaigns and a CNN political contributor. “Whenever there is an opportunity to pivot to the future, they have to take that opportunity.”

In addition to Trump, DeSantis, Pence and Scott, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum all appear to have reached the donor and polling thresholds to make the stage. The RNC is also requiring candidates sign a loyalty pledge to participate. Trump has not signed it. Christie has met the polling and donor thresholds to attend the debate but has yet to sign the RNC pledge.

Many of the Republican hopefuls have been busy studying the records of their rivals – particularly how DeSantis has governed in Florida and voted in Congress – as they prepare to draw distinctions in hopes of finding a breakout moment next week.

Some candidates who have struggled to gain attention are practicing lines of attack against their better-positioned contenders, strategists tell CNN, even as the overarching goal for many is simply to introduce themselves to a larger television audience. One of the biggest challenges, strategists say, is gaining attention without turning off voters.

Ukraine funding, abortion bans and job creation are among the subject areas on which the field of Republican candidates may offer differences with one another. But as in early primary debates from previous presidential races, there’s likely to be more agreement than disagreement expressed onstage, despite a rising sense of urgency and need to shake up the field.

A Fox News poll released ahead of the debate showed Trump holding on to a broad lead over his rivals nationally, with 53% of Republican voters saying they would back him. DeSantis remains in second at 16%, but his standing has slipped from Fox’s June poll. Ramaswamy is the only other candidate to crack double digits, at 11%.

DeSantis in the crosshairs

If Trump is not onstage Wednesday, DeSantis and his campaign have asserted that they expect the Florida governor to become the focal point of candidates looking to further cut into his support. The suggestion fits with other efforts by DeSantis to portray the GOP primary as a two-man race, though national surveys continue to show he is polling closer to the rest of the field than he is to Trump.

“If you look at how this field develops, clearly, I’m the only guy that Trump’s campaign attacks, basically,” DeSantis said in an interview Wednesday. “And then the other candidates, a lot of them don’t really say much about Donald Trump, and they focus more on me. So we’re going to be ready for all of that.”

A memo from a super PAC supporting DeSantis, and first reported by The New York Times, suggested several goals for the Florida Republican, including to “hammer” Ramaswamy and “defend Donald Trump in absentia” if attacked by Christie. The memo by Never Back Down was originally posted to the website of Axiom, a firm owned by super PAC consultant and veteran Republican strategist Jeff Roe, along with internal polling from New Hampshire, an assessment of the Iowa electorate and dossiers on how each candidate might attack DeSantis. The memo has stirred confusion and anger from fundraisers and donors, multiple sources told CNN on Thursday. One person close to DeSantis’ political operation was surprised a person at the super PAC would even write a memo or think it was appropriate to give the campaign advice just a week out from the debate.

Tell It Like It Is, a super PAC supporting Christie, issued a tongue-in-cheek memo in response, with the guidance for the New Jersey governor to “Be yourself, and Tell It Like It Is.”

“I’ve got a very simple debate strategy,” Christie told CNN on Friday. “I’ll listen to the questions, answer them directly and honestly. And if someone up there says something that I believe is dishonest, to call them out on it. That’s it.”

In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for Ramaswamy responded to the Times story by saying that the candidate will “introduce himself and his vision” at Wednesday’s debate and “these boring, canned attack lines from a robotic candidate doesn’t change that.”

Some candidates have signaled a recent willingness to interrogate DeSantis and scrutinize his record for Republican voters. Christie said his strategy is to first surpass DeSantis in polling, “then we are going to take on Donald Trump one-on-one.”

Haley’s campaign has lately poked fun at the public struggles that have dogged DeSantis’ White House bid this summer. Scott criticized new middle-school Black history standards adopted in DeSantis’ Florida while highlighting the governor’s refusal to back a national abortion ban.

Privately, though, DeSantis’ team is aware that he has yet to face a crowded debate field in front of a prime-time audience, a source close to his campaign told CNN, and the Florida governor has practiced extensively for the challenge of potentially sparring with more seasoned debaters such as Christie and Pence. Assisting DeSantis is Brett O’Donnell, a veteran debate coach who has prepared presidential contenders from front-runners John McCain and George W. Bush to insurgent candidates like former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. He also spent nearly two decades as an acclaimed debate coach at Liberty University – the Virginia evangelical school founded by Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and where DeSantis was a featured speaker earlier this year.

DeSantis underwhelmed last fall in his one gubernatorial debate against Democrat Charlie Crist and he displayed some troubling ticks – teeth gnashing, awkward silences and forced smiles – that will only be magnified on national television. In video of a 2018 debate practice leaked to ABC earlier this year, his advisers encouraged him to write the word “likable” in all caps at the top of his notes as a reminder to appear less aggressive.

Those close to his campaign have downplayed DeSantis’ debate performance last year, noting he was far ahead in polling at the time and had practiced little for a debate that was unlikely to change his reelection prospects. Still, there has been particular focus on adjusting DeSantis’ mannerisms onstage to avoid the camera capturing any gawky moments, the source close to his campaign said.

Other candidates looking for a breakout moment have undergone intense preparations as well. Pence, one of the few with previous experience debating at this level, started training for the first presidential primary debate last month – before he had reached the donor threshold to qualify for the debate.

Pence has held half a dozen debate prep sessions led by Greg Jacob, who worked as legal counsel to Pence when he was vice president and oversaw his past debate preparations. The Pence team held a mock debate last week in Indianapolis that did not include a Trump stand-in, and one this week that did. Pence, who is notoriously diligent and studious, has been studying 2016 debates as a reference.

Scott campaign manager Jennifer DeCasper told CNN that the South Carolina senator’s team has surrounded him with subject matter and debate experts who will “poke and jab at him” and “throw him some crazy fast pitches.”

“He’s on fire when he has fun,” she said.

Contenders say Trump is acting entitled

The timing for Trump’s expected interview with Carlson has yet to be determined, sources told CNN, but it is expected to air around the same time as the debate. Trump and his top advisers continue to believe it is not worth giving the other candidates – some of whom are polling in the low single digits – an opportunity to throw hay at the former president in hopes of building momentum.

Trump’s position was further bolstered after Fox News executives, including network president Jay Wallace and chief executive Suzanne Scott, traveled to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club last month to persuade him to participate, sources close to Trump tell CNN, including one person who spoke with the former president on Monday about that meeting. Trump’s personal read from that meeting, during which Wallace and Scott repeatedly encouraged him to attend the debate, is that the network is worried about ratings without him there.

Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents have gotten considerable mileage out of his oscillating, criticizing him often for acting entitled to the nomination. In a recent interview, Haley said it would be “hard to earn” voters’ support “if you’re absent.” DeSantis told a conservative podcast on Wednesday that Trump “owes it to people” to show up.

“I think, quite frankly, if he didn’t show up, it would be much more trouble for him,” Christie told Newsmax earlier this month, later adding, “I doubt that I’ll miss an opportunity to bring his name up, especially if he decides to chicken out and not show up.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional information.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Alayna Treene, Kimberly Berryman, Veronica Stracqualursi, Kyung Lah, Kit Maher and Allison Main contributed to this report.

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