(WASHINGTON) — Donald Trump will likely not attend one or both of the first two 2024 Republican primary debates, which begin in August, multiple sources who have spoken to the former president told ABC News.
One person wondered, “What’s the point?” — pointing to Trump’s lead in multiple polls and suggesting that duking it out with other candidates would only legitimize them. Trump also has a history of skipping debates, sometimes at the last minute.
A final decision is still in the offing. But some of Trump’s 2024 primary opponents or possible rivals — and their aides — say they see a chance to raise their profiles in a debate setting in which Trump, because of his absence, wouldn’t dominate the spotlight.
They’re also seizing on another attack line.
“I think that if he doesn’t debate, the question is, is he afraid of actually being challenged? And I think the answer is, he might be. I’d like to think he’s not,” GOP primary candidate and political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy told ABC News in an interview.
“Maybe it’ll be politically good for me if Trump doesn’t show up on the debate stage because we have an ability to each have more remaining time to make our own case … Frankly, I think he might be scared of being on a debate stage,” said Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump confidante-turned-critic and ABC News contributor who is mulling his own White House bid, echoed that in a radio interview Wednesday.
“[I]f he really cares about the country, then he’s going to get up there and he shouldn’t be afraid,” Christie said. “I’m sorry to see that Donald Trump feels like if he gets on the stage, he’s at risk of losing his lead.”
“If, in fact, his ideas are so great, if his leadership is so outstanding, then his lead will only increase if he gets on the stage, not decrease,” Christie said. “But obviously, he’s afraid.”
Trump regularly criticizes the news coverage he receives on Fox News, the host of the August debate, and the second debate is being hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute, whose board is chaired by Fred Ryan, the publisher of The Washington Post — another of Trump’s favorite media targets.
Rather than debate, Trump allies say that he could offer counterprogramming, holding a rally or some other event at the same time, possibly making a debate feel smaller without the person seen as the primary front-runner.
His campaign also boasts that his presence adds millions of eyeballs to debates, inadvertently benefiting current and would-be foes like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and others.
“President Trump is the clear front-runner — as evidenced by his dominating poll numbers showing him crushing the competition in the primary and general elections — and it is no surprise every other candidate and potential candidate wants to ride his coattails to relevancy,” campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement.
Still, advisers to other conservatives who might run in 2024 argue that even a diminished audience benefits their candidates, who would have more ability to shine in a Trump-less debate.
“It gives a lot of people a lot more air time to talk about what they want to talk about. And some of it’ll be about Trump, but a lot of it’ll be about themselves and issues that they believe in and differences between themselves,” said one aide to a potential 2024 Republican candidate, who said he doesn’t want Trump to attend and who asked not to be quoted by name.
“I think the first debate will not have the fireworks that Trump would have brought to it,” said an aide to a different Republican eyeing a 2024 campaign. “But it will be an opportunity for other candidates — DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and whoever else may join — to introduce themselves to voters. This will be a very clean introduction. So, in some ways, it’s actually quite helpful for the field.”
However, even if Trump’s foes do have a breakout moment, other GOP operatives argued that any edge is likely to be temporary.
What’s more, political consultants have previously told ABC News that debates aren’t always swaying voters, who make up their minds based on many different sources.
The former president is not anticipated, right now, to skip every primary debate.
“I think it’s ultimately forgotten,” veteran GOP strategist Bob Heckman said when asked if any impact from Trump’s absence would be blunted once he returns to the stage.
“That’s the way presidential campaigns go, they’re all momentum driven,” Heckman said.
And those who have faced off against Trump and his team warn that his debating style — infamously characterized by personal insults — can be difficult to counteract.
“Trump is tough because he’s so unorthodox. He doesn’t follow any of the traditional rules of debating and is liable as to say literally anything,” said Alex Conant, a top staffer on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“He’ll attack everyone on the stage, he’ll take the audience, he’ll attack the moderator,” Conant said. “And that’s just his first answer.”
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