Debate Preview: What to Look for Wednesday Night

While the debate will be less exciting without President Donald Trump, it is an important milestone in the 2024 presidential campaign.

by Newt Gingrich

The 2024 Republican presidential primary debates will begin on Wednesday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The location is significant, because it’s where the GOP will hold its national convention next July.

Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum of Fox News will host the debate. All the major Republican candidates will be there – except the frontrunner, former President Donald J. Trump.

While the debate will be less exciting (and less watched) without Trump, it is still an important milestone in the evolving presidential nomination campaign of 2024.

The first presidential debate I watched was Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. I also had my own debate experience as a presidential candidate in 2012 (which was deeply educational). So, I thought it would be fun to note some of the things people should watch out for this week.

Since no one currently is the clear alternative to President Trump, Wednesday night’s debate will be an important audition for that role.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was supposed to be the obvious alternative. While DeSantis has been an amazingly effective governor, he has been a shockingly inadequate presidential candidate. To use lingo he would recognize as the former captain of the Yale baseball team,  DeSantis simply has not been able to hit big league pitching. Running for president is the biggest league.

Still, it is possible DeSantis reemerges as the logical alternative to Trump. DeSantis has more than $100 million in his superPAC. He is governor of the third largest state in the country. Of all the current candidates he is the most likely to really challenge the former president.

However, a leaked memo from the DeSantis team suggests he will spend his time going after Vivek Ramaswamy – a brilliant young entrepreneur who has emerged as a potential challenger. This would be a mistake. DeSantis has two jobs: prove he is presidential in a likable way and waken the frontrunner. Attacking Ramaswamy will undermine both goals.

Ramaswamy’s challenge is totally different than DeSantis’. He must prove three things to the viewers. First, he must show that he knows enough about the world to be president. Second, he must appear likable. Third, he must stay cheerful and calm if and when he is attacked (the Ronald Reagan model).

For the other candidates, the challenges are simpler. First, no candidate should become the anti-Trump candidate. This would anger too many Republican voters. Second, successful candidates must make one or two comments that are vivid and interesting enough to get picked up by television news. More people will see the clips on the news than will watch the debate itself. As a relative unknown, any positive coverage beyond the debate is a big step forward.

Finally, it will be interesting to see if the Fox Team thinks beyond Trump.

As Mark Halperin pointed out in his “Wide World of News” newsletter, “In the entire ‘Meet the Press’ interview Chuck Todd did with presidential candidate Doug Burgum on Sunday, eight of the nine questions were about Donald Trump.”

With President Trump going to Fulton County, Ga., the day after the debate, the temptation will be great for the Fox panel to figure out a dozen legitimate questions about Trump’s situation.

Ironically, from President Trump’s perspective, a debate in which he is physically absent – but psychologically the center of attention – would work just fine.

However, if this becomes a debate about Trump rather than a debate about America’s future, neither the candidates nor the country will be well served.

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