The eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination who will be on the debate stage are, from left, Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum.
If you were to watch Wednesday’s Republican presidential primary debate knowing nothing about what happened in American politics over the last eight years, you might not realize that Donald Trump, the front-runner for the nomination, even exists.
The former president won’t be at this first debate, which is being hosted by Fox News, and most of his opponents for the GOP nomination aren’t likely to bring him up on stage without being explicitly asked about him. And when they do, inevitably, talk about Trump, it’s likely to be in glowing or neutral terms, even as they confront questions about Trump’s fitness for office following his fourth criminal indictment. It’s not unlike the approach that some detractors blame for helping Trump win the presidency in 2016.
Only two long shots taking the stage Wednesday have made their campaigns about antagonizing Trump. The rest are sharpening their attacks against other competitors. But that doesn’t mean there’s zero chance of a Trump-aimed pile-on, given his big lead and the charged energy of the debate stage.
Here’s how likely the candidates are to bash Trump, who will be doing his own thing with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Twitter, X — whatever you want to call it now — while the rest of the field appears on Trump’s former favorite network. Let’s begin with the candidates least likely to attack Trump:
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has called Trump the greatest president of the last century.
8. Vivek Ramaswamy: Trump Stan All The Way
The millennial biotech entrepreneur is definitely the least likely to engage in Trump bashing during Wednesday’s debate.
Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old author of a bestselling 2021 book about combating “wokeness” in corporate America, is nothing if not a staunch Trump ally, vowing to pardon him for any crimes on “day one” of his presidency and calling Trump one of the greatest presidents ever. Ramaswamy is such a full-throated Trump stan that he’s been (baselessly) accused of being a plant for Trump’s campaign.
Ramaswamy won’t go after one of his professed political heroes, someone he’s been compared to as he campaigns for president. Like Trump in 2016, Ramaswamy is a rich outsider with no political experience who’s been willing to pour his own money into his campaign. And like Trump, he’s floated conspiracies — suggesting the government may have lied about 9/11 and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — and extreme policies, like raising the voting age to 25 for most Americans and gutting the federal government.
Unlike others competing for the nomination, Ramaswamy often goes out of his way to praise Trump. At the Iowa State Fair this month, he applauded Trump for identifying the “deep state” and called him “the most successful president in our century.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is more focused on introducing himself to voters than he is about badmouthing Trump.
7. Doug Burgum: Doug Who?
Burgum has bigger questions to address than why Donald Trump shouldn’t be the Republican nominee — first and foremost, who is Doug Burgum?
North Dakota’s uber-wealthy governor only made the debate stage after literally promising to send people money if they donated so he could meet the Republican National Committee’s small-donor threshold. It worked, and thanks to that effort and a few polls where he registered at 1% or higher, Burgum now gets to make his case to a national audience.
If his recent comments are any clue, he won’t give much oxygen to the former president. Burgum said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this weekend: “If I’m just one more pundit, you know, criticizing everything that’s gone on in 2020, no one’s going to see that there’s leadership there,” he said, trying to brush off questions about Trump’s indictments.
Sen. Tim Scott says he doesn't blame Trump for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
6. Tim Scott: The Evangelical Wild Card
Tim Scott, one of two Black Republicans running for the nomination (the other Black candidate, radio host Larry Elder, did not make the first debate) is becoming better known in Iowa, at least, for his focus on faith and his inspiring life story.
Scott is pitted against Trump for the support of evangelicals, a voting bloc that, according to the most recent Iowa Poll, Trump is carrying handily.
But that doesn’t mean Scott will make the case to religious voters that he’s more aligned with their values than Trump. Scott has been a staunch Trump backer in the U.S. Senate, declining to impeach him for his actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“The president is simply not guilty,” he said a month after the Jan. 6 attack. “The chances of me understanding and appreciating the severity of the situation is 100%. The one person I don’t blame is President Trump.”
Unlike Scott’s “understanding… of the situation,” his chances of going after Trump this week are close to 0%.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has flip-flopped — and then flip-flopped again — on Trump.
5. Nikki Haley: ‘Underestimated’ Trump Flip-Flopper
You won’t hear Nikki Haley talk about Trump much by name on the campaign trail, despite the fact that one of Haley’s biggest career achievements was serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the behest of Trump, and then leaving on good terms in 2018.
Haley, also the first woman of any ethnicity to serve as South Carolina governor, has flip-flopped on Trump more than most, giving her detractors plenty of runway to argue that she’s always attuned to what’s most politically expedient.
After Jan. 6, Haley said Trump “went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him.”
Later that same year: “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”
At times recently she’s seemed close to breaking with Trump, suggesting the GOP lost too much under him and implying that both President Joe Biden, 80, and Trump, 77, are too old for office.
Given her lack of traction in polls, Haley, who’s been in the race longer than any other Republican, might need a new approach to match the campaign swag that dares her rivals: “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested last week that maybe Trump shouldn't be running for president in 2024.
4. Ron DeSantis: Sick Of Being Silent?
Expectations were sky high for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who launched a presidential bid promising to be the more electable version of Donald Trump, coded in speeches about the successes of the great state of Florida. And a fundamental aspect of being the new-and-improved version of anything is not disavowing the old model.
But DeSantis, just three months into his troubled campaign, needs a big breakout moment, and that’s generally what debates are for — except that DeSantis is being advised to defend Trump instead of putting him down.
New signs, however, point to DeSantis losing his resolve against criticizing the former president. He’s defied the “Make America Great Again” orthodoxy by admitting that Trump lost the 2020 election. Last week, DeSantis made his sharpest remarks yet against Trump, suggesting he should have never joined the 2024 presidential race in response to a question about the indictments. (DeSantis still argues that Trump’s legal troubles are the result of a weaponized government and political vendettas.)
"I had no right to overturn it," former Vice President Mike Pence says of the 2020 election.
3. Mike Pence: Newly Emboldened By Jan. 6
It took Mike Pence nearly getting killed to break with Trump after four years as his vice president. And it took the 2023 Iowa State Fair for Pence to realize the power he could wield in the GOP presidential primary and against Trump.
Interest in Pence’s sputtering campaign appeared to briefly surge in Iowa after he began playing up his role defying his “former running mate” on Jan. 6, 2021, actions that will remain in the headlines as Trump’s trials on charges that he tried to overturn the 2020 election get underway.
In Iowa, Pence offered a glimpse of how he might handle Jan. 6 on the debate stage: “Frankly, my former running mate has spent the last 2½ years telling people something that just didn’t sell,” Pence told reporters there this month. “President Trump was wrong when he asked me, and he told the American people ever since I had the right to overturn the election. I had no right to overturn it.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said Trump shouldn't even be running for president considering his multiple legal issues.
2. Asa Hutchinson: The Anti-Trumper You’ve Never Heard Of
The former Arkansas governor who calls himself America’s “consistent conservative” barely made the debate stage, where he’ll probably surprise the audience with some of his anti-Trump stances.
Hutchinson, who led a division of the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, is a holdover from a pre-Trump GOP and stands no real shot in the contest. His claim to fame now: He’s one of the only candidates who said that Trump’s legal troubles should preclude him from running.
“The office is more important than any individual person,” Hutchinson said in April, days after Trump’s indictment in the hush money case.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, is betting that he can beat Trump in a debate, even without Trump in the room.
1. Chris Christie: The Anti-Trump Hammer
The former New Jersey governor (another person nearly killed by Trump) isn’t hiding what his campaign is really about — stopping the former president from retaking the White House.
“Let me be very clear,” he said at the time of his campaign launch. “I am going out there to take out Donald Trump, but here’s why: I want to win. And I don’t want him to win.”
Christie is the only Republican hopeful going after Trump in personal terms, calling him a “bitter, angry man,” and accusing his family of grifting off the presidency.
One way that Christie plans to stop Trump is leaning into his strength as a skilled debater who helped the former president prepare for this head-to-head with Democratic nominee Joe Biden in 2020.
Christie, who didn’t win a single nominating contest in 2016, still takes credit for slaying Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at a New Hampshire debate in early February of that year, when he called him out for a “memorized 30-second speech.” Christie ended his own campaign after losing the New Hampshire primary a few days later, and Rubio wasn’t far behind.
The former governor is hoping to deliver a similarly memorable blow on stage Wednesday night, even without Trump there.
“There’s no other conclusion to come to than he’s both afraid of me and he’s afraid of defending his record,” Christie told reporters this week. “And if I had his record, I’d be nervous about showing up, too.”