Campaign

Trump creates spectacle with debate guessing game

Former President Trump is seeking to keep the spotlight on him by drawing out his decision on whether or not to join his fellow candidates in the first GOP presidential primary debate later this month.

Trump has been threatening to skip the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) Aug. 23 debate for months, citing his front-runner status in the primary, but he said this week that he hasn’t “totally ruled it out.” 

He told Eric Bolling on Wednesday on Newsmax that he’s “already decided” whether he’ll attend but said he won’t announce his plans until the following week, even closer to the event date.

“Attention. That’s it,” Doug Heye, former RNC communications director, said of Trump’s motivation for not confirming sooner. “How can he maximize attention so the conversation isn’t about the debate — the conversation’s about whether or not Donald Trump will debate, so he gets all the attention?”

Trump has been talking about the possibility of skipping the debate since late April, and the will-he-or-won’t-he debate has been a hot topic in the months since — especially as the GOP primary field grew to include Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence, former Trump ally Chris Christie and others. 

He’s faced pressure from the RNC and his fellow White House contenders to get on the stage, while others have argued he should sit it out.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has typically polled in second place behind Trump, said last month that “nobody’s entitled to be nominated” and that Trump “should show up and make his case and answer questions like the rest of us.”

Christie said Trump would be a “coward” for not participating. Just this week, the former New Jersey governor hit back at recent attacks from Trump, telling the former president, “If you had the guts, you would show up to the debate and say it to my face.” 

But not all of his rivals want to see him there. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said this week that Trump would be a “distraction” on the debate stage.

On one hand, strategists suggest that the former president’s GOP competitors could benefit from getting to take a swipe at Trump on stage, but on the other hand, it could be easier for them to talk more about other topics if he sits out. 

“I’d just as soon Donald Trump not participate in the debate simply because we want to talk about the issues,” Hutchinson said during an MSNBC interview.

But strategists predict Trump will be a central conversation in the debate whether he shows up or not. 

“Whether or not he’s there, his presence will be massive. I mean, the whole primary at this point is whether or not Republicans are going to double down on Trump, since an alternative hasn’t emerged,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. 

At a rally in New Hampshire this week, Trump publicly polled his supporters on whether he should attend the event. 

“We’re so far above everybody else in the polls. They’re all saying, ‘Is he going to go into the debate’ … Should I? OK, you ready? Poll … Should I do the debate?” Trump asked the crowd, spurring cheers and some boos. 

“Maybe we’ll do something else. See, some people say yes, but they hate to say it, because it doesn’t make sense to do it if you’re leading by so much. But they like it for entertainment value, because they’re selfish,” Trump said, laughing at the crowd’s reaction. 

He asked a crowd in Pennsylvania last month whether he should join “10 or 12 hostile people and a hostile network” at the event and was met with a chorus of “no.” 

“It’s classic Trump style to create a momentum around an event by unveiling what his decision might be regarding it,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said. “I mean, he comes from television. … This is ready-made for television.” 

Trump has continued to poll well ahead of most of his primary rivals. The latest Morning Consult poll on the GOP primary field, taken last week, showed Trump with 59 percent — far ahead of DeSantis with 16 percent.

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy earned 8 percent, Pence secured just 6 percent and the other seven candidates tested got 3 percent or lower. 

Some strategists say Trump’s base is already so squarely in his corner that it doesn’t matter whether or not the former president joins the debate — though others note his absence could make it possible for another candidate to stand out in what’s seen by many as a race for second place. 

“The RNC debate is really: What if Trump isn’t the nominee?” Bonjean said. “The RNC debate is really a contingency affair, a contingency event, in case Trump is sidelined by his legal woes.”

The RNC has laid out a series of requirements candidates vying to get into the party’s first debate must meet, including polling and donor thresholds. 

But perhaps the most controversial requirement is the candidate loyalty pledge, a promise to support whichever contender becomes the eventual GOP nominee. Trump has hit the polling and donor benchmarks, but said outright that he won’t sign the pledge. 

“I wouldn’t sign the pledge. Why would I sign a pledge if there are people on there that I wouldn’t have? I wouldn’t have certain people as somebody that I would endorse,” Trump said on Newsmax last week.

Given the pros and cons for the former president’s campaign, Republican strategists are split on whether Trump will ultimately take the stage, adding to the uncertainty just two weeks out from the event that is seen as the real kickoff to the 2024 GOP presidential primary cycle. 

Heye said Trump will avoid the stage because he doesn’t want to “elevate” his fellow candidates “to his level” and suggested the former president might hold his own event the day of the debate or shortly after. 

“He wants you to tune in tomorrow. So he’s going to keep suspense going, and then he’s going to make whatever decision he feels best benefits him,” Heye said. If Trump doesn’t debate, he said, “he’s going to find a way to still be present in the news.”

Saul Anuzis, a GOP strategist and former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said Trump himself has “very little gain and a lot to lose” by participating — particularly as the former president faces a variety of legal woes, including three indictments this year alone on criminal charges, that could be complicated by an errant comment at the podium. 

Conant, on the other hand, said he doesn’t think Trump can “go the distance” without getting on stage. 

“If he’s not there, nobody is going to defend him from what will turn into a prime-time event bashing him,” Conant said. “Presidential campaigns live and die by media oxygen, and if you’re not on the debate stage, you’re giving a ton of oxygen to your challengers.”

The guessing game has helped put the GOP front-runner at the center of the news cycle. 

“He keeps everybody on their toes. He keeps the Republican Party and others asking him to be part of the debate,” Anuzis said. “And I think the news cycle benefits him, because everybody’s doing an analysis of why he’s not going on.”

“He’s just playing it out for everything you can get from it,” he added. 

Brett Samuels contributed.

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