Former President Donald J. Trump will not be present. But eight other Republicans hoping to catch him are now poised for the first debate of the 2024 presidential primary on Wednesday in Milwaukee, the Republican National Committee announced Monday night.
Those eight include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been Trump's biggest rival in most polls, and Mike Pence, Trump's former vice president. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally-turned-opponent, has secured a spot, as has another vocal Trump opponent, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Two prominent Republicans from South Carolina have also secured spots on the stage: Senator Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations Ambassador. They will be joined by political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
The candidates will provide Republicans with a diverse field in which to run against President Biden: six past or current governors, one black candidate, two candidates born to Indian immigrants, one woman and one former vice president.
A handful of others were in the bubble as of Monday night. The Republican National Committee had given candidates a 9 p.m. deadline to collect at least 40,000 donors and score 1 percent in a specified number of qualifying national and state polls.
But two officials familiar with the RNC's decision said three candidates all fell short: Perry Johnson, a businessman who had previously attempted to run for Michigan governor; Francis X. Suarez, the Mayor of Miami; and Larry Elder, a talk show host whose run for governor of California failed. These three campaigns, all already far-fetched, had claimed to have hit the donation and election threshold. But now they face an even more uncertain future.
The RNC also required candidates to sign a pledge of support for whoever the party nominated. At least one candidate has stated publicly that he would refuse to sign it: Will Hurd, a former Texas congressman who has said he is an opponent of Mr Trump.
With Mr. Trump opting to skip the debate altogether and citing his substantial lead in the polls, much of the attention is likely to be drawn to Mr. DeSantis, who despite initial difficulties remains consistently in second place.
The debate will air Wednesday at 9pm on Fox News, with Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum serving as moderators.
Although the candidates have been campaigning for months in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the debate represents the first moment many voters are watching the contest — or even learning about many of the candidates.
“Most of what you do in this process is filtered through the media,” Mr. DeSantis said last week during his campaign in Georgia. “Rarely do you have the opportunity to speak to so many people directly.”
However, it remains unclear how much the debate will alter a race in which Mr Trump remains the prohibitive frontrunner, leading the field by large double digits. The presenters said they plan to give Mr Trump a presence with quotes and clips from the former president, even though he won't be on stage. So far, much of the race has revolved around Mr Trump, with candidates repeatedly questioned about his denial of the 2020 election results, his four charges and his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
The other candidates have been preparing for weeks. Mr. DeSantis has hired a well-known debating coach, Mr. Pence has held practice sessions with mock stands in Indiana, and Mr. Ramaswamy has held sessions with advisors on his private plane (Mr. Ramaswamy also posted a video of himself shirtless). He hit tennis balls on Monday, calling it “three hours of solid debate prep”). Only Mr Christie and Mr Pence have previously taken part in presidential-level debates, giving these two an edge over less experienced rivals.
Some of the people on the stage are nationally known, including Mr Pence, who took part in two widely followed vice-presidential debates. But for Mr. Burgum and others, the event will be their national introduction and a chance to sell their bios or real people of trust, such as Mr. Hutchinson, a former congressman who has become one of the party's most vocal Trump critics.
Breaking media attention around the former president takes a viral moment – a surprise attack or a notable defense – and candidates have so far been reluctant to publicly announce their strategy. The release of Mr. DeSantis' super-PAC memos last week was seen as a serious tactical error that increased pressure on the Florida governor while limiting his attacking capabilities.
Some of Mr Trump's rivals mocked him for skipping the debate and Mr Christie called him a “coward”. Those taunts failed to lure Mr Trump, although Mr Christie has signaled his willingness to attack him in absentia.
It's far from clear how much fire the rest of the field will direct at the missing leader, or if they'll squabble among themselves to claim second place as his leading challenger.
Mr. DeSantis' advisers have said they expect he will bear the brunt of Wednesday's attacks as he will be the front-runner on the stage.
Mr. Scott and his allies have regularly aired commercials in Iowa, and he has risen to third place in several polls there, including this week's Des Moines Register/NBC News poll. But those ads have so far not helped him catch Mr. DeSantis, let alone Mr. Trump.
Ms Haley, the former governor of South Carolina before serving as Trump's ambassador, has tried to find a middle ground, arguing that the party needs to get past the former president, but without being overly critical of the administration that has her belonged to
Mr Pence has been seeking traction in a race in which he has been branded a traitor to Mr Trump by some voters for resisting his attempt to block certification of Mr Biden's victory. That confrontation established Mr. Pence as a critical witness in a federal indictment against Mr. Trump.
Of course, Mr. Trump is not giving up the limelight entirely. As a counterpoint to the network's debate, he taped an interview with Tucker Carlson, former Fox News host. And on Monday, his attorneys agreed to post $200,000 bail before he would surrender to authorities in Georgia later this week after being charged with criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election result there.
The indictment against Mr Trump was the fourth this year, although the spate of indictments so far has done little to slow or halt his consolidated support in the polls.