(CNN) — The front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination is not only skipping the first presidential primary debate of the season – he’s also attempting to wrest the spotlight away from the stage in Milwaukee.
With the Republican National Committee’s window to meet fundraising and polling requirements having closed Monday night, the debate stage is set, and the GOP contenders vying to become the party’s top alternative to former President Donald Trump are making their final preparations ahead of what will be among the most-watched moments in many of their political careers. As his rivals prepare for the two-hour showdown on Fox News, Trump’s campaign is attempting to counter-program the debate.
The first debate, a key moment in any presidential primary, is also taking place in the middle of a week in which Trump’s legal troubles will once again take center stage.
Trump has already taped an interview with Tucker Carlson, the fired former Fox News host, two sources familiar with the matter told CNN Monday. It is unclear what platform the interview with Carlson will be published on. The sources said that it would be released around the time of the debate Wednesday night.
The former president, who on Sunday said he will skip the first debate and could skip others, is expected to spend Wednesday evening at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
But Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and other surrogates planned to travel to Milwaukee, where they would have had opportunities to weigh in on national broadcasts before and after the debate in the spin room.
However, Fox News informed the Trump campaign on Monday that they will no longer provide credentials to some surrogates of the former president to attend the spin room at the debate since the former president is not participating in the debate, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told CNN.
Some of Trump’s surrogates are credentialed through outside media groups and will not be impacted. Former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Reps. Byron Donalds and Matt Gaetz of Florida and other Republicans are slated to attend the debate.
Members of Trump’s campaign, including his senior advisers Jason Miller, Steven Cheung and Chris LaCivita, were also planning on being in the spin room.
While Fox News is in charge of credentials for the spin room, the RNC manages credentials for the actual debate, and sources said those tickets are still expected be honored.
Members of Trump’s teams and his surrogates, however, are still planning on traveling to Milwaukee and are working on a resolution with the network as well as the RNC, two Trump advisers told CNN.
Fox News did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Ahead of the debate, some candidates are offering previews of their lines of attack – including criticizing Trump for choosing not to participate.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday said Trump “owes it to people” to debate, arguing voters – even those who appreciate the former president’s record – will be angry over his decision to skip the the first showdown.
“I don’t think they’re going to look kindly on somebody that thinks they don’t have to earn it,” DeSantis said on Fox News.
Trump, though, is poised to once again seize headlines this week with new developments in his legal troubles stemming from the former president’s efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election.
In an election subversion case in Georgia, Trump has agreed to a $200,000 bond and other release conditions after his lawyers met with the Fulton County district attorney’s office on Monday, according to court documents reviewed by CNN.
Trump will turn himself in Thursday in Fulton County, the former president announced on his social media platform Monday.
DeSantis could be a target
With Trump out, DeSantis – who has consistently polled in second place nationally and in early-voting states – could be positioned to face the sharpest scrutiny Wednesday night, as other contenders seek to replace him as the party’s top alternative to Trump.
“We’ll be ready,” DeSantis said Monday. “I think that with Donald Trump not being there, I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m going to be probably the guy that people are going to come after.”
The Florida governor also continued to distance himself from a memo from the super PAC Never Back Down, which last week advised him to “hammer” entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and defend Trump if he is attacked by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“That’s a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not something that I’ve read, and it’s not, not reflective of my strategy,” DeSantis said Monday.
However, DeSantis has unusually close ties with the super PAC. He has outsourced many typical campaign functions, including early-state organizing, to the super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums. DeSantis frequently appears at events as a “special guest” of the super PAC.
Other candidates plot their strategies
Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old entrepreneur who has risen in polling in recent weeks, appears to have become a significant factor in the race in his rivals’ eyes.
Another contender, Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, attacked Ramaswamy on Monday, in a potential preview of a debate-stage showdown.
Haley said Ramaswamy is “completely wrong” for his call to reduce US military aid to Israel. During an interview with Russell Brand on Rumble last week, Ramaswamy claimed he would cut off additional aid to Israel in 2028, after the current $38 billion US aid package expires.
“This is part of a pattern with Vivek—his foreign policies have a common theme: they make America less safe,” Haley said on Twitter.
Ramaswamy, for his part, tweeted a video of himself, shirtless, practicing tennis. “Three hours of solid debate prep this morning,” he said.
One key wild card Wednesday night is Christie. He is the only contender on stage who has run against Trump before, and has proven lethal on the debate stage previously: In February 2016, he effectively stymied all momentum of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio when he mocked Rubio for delivering memorized, pre-planned lines.
Since launching his 2024 bid, Christie has focused most of his attacks on Trump. But as he campaigned in Miami last week, he also criticized DeSantis, pointing to the super PAC memo.
“The only way to beat someone is to beat them. If [DeSantis] thinks he’s gonna get on the stage and defend Donald Trump on Wednesday night, then he should do Donald Trump a favor and do our party a favor, come back to Tallahassee, endorse Donald Trump, and get the hell out of the race,” Christie said.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a strong fundraiser who many within the GOP see as an increasing factor in the race, has largely stuck to a positive and optimistic message, making Wednesday night a test of whether and how he is willing to mix it up with his rivals.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has emphasized his conservative positions on ideological issues like abortion. But he had also looked for a debate-stage clash with Trump, his former running mate. On Sunday, he criticized the former president on ABC for skipping the first debate.
“Every one of us who have qualified for that debate stage ought to be on the stage willing to square off and answer those tough questions,” Pence said.
Polls show Trump with clear lead
As the first debate approaches, polls of likely Republican voters nationally and of those in the early-voting states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – have consistently shown Trump well ahead of his rivals at this stage of the race.
Trump held a clear lead over his rivals in a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom poll of likely Iowa GOP caucusgoers released Monday, though just over half say they are not locked in to their choice and could be persuaded to support someone else.
Overall, 42% say Trump is their first choice, followed by 19% supporting DeSantis. No other candidate reaches double digits. Behind them, 9% back Scott, 6% each back Haley and Pence, 5% support Christie, 4% back Ramaswamy, 2% back North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and 1% support former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, with the rest of the field tested landing below 1%.
About two-thirds say they have favorable impressions of DeSantis (66%) and Trump (65%), with majorities also expressing positive views of Scott (59%) and Haley (53%). Views of Christie (60% unfavorable to 28% favorable) and Pence (53% unfavorable to 42% favorable) break negative. Many of the other candidates have low name recognition, with four in 10 or more not sure about them.
About half, 52%, of likely caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to support someone other than their first choice candidate, while 40% say their minds are made up. Trump’s supporters are more likely to be locked in (66% say so), yet a third say they could be persuaded to back someone else (34%). Among those backing a candidate other than Trump, 69% say they could be persuaded to support someone else, and 31% say that their mind is made up.
The poll was conducted by Selzer and Co. August 13-17 among a random sample of 406 likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who considered his own presidential run before passing earlier this year, said Monday on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that the GOP primary field needs to narrow before the race reaches the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
He said candidates who are mired in the low-single digits in the polls by early December should drop out.
“By New Hampshire you need three or four candidates in the race to really make it, you know, a real opportunity and an option for the Republican voter,” he said.
And Sununu dismissed Trump’s steady national polling leads, saying that his lead would fall “as we get around to Christmas,” while pointing to early state polls, where the former president still leads, though by a smaller margin.
“Trump is really dominating the national media airwaves. It’s not shocking that he’s there,” he said. “But as the debates start, as people get more and more into that conversation in October, November, as we get around to Christmas, I think nationally his numbers come back down to what you see in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.