The GOP Race For Second Place Is On

Eight candidates are set to appear onstage this week in the battleground state of Wisconsin for the first GOP primary debate of the 2024 presidential cycle.

Not one of them is named Donald Trump, the indicted former president leading the race by a mile. He intends to skip the Milwaukee event ― as well as all future debates ― robbing his rivals of the opportunity to confront him in person Wednesday.

That means candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, as well as the six others who met the Republican National Committee’s debate criteria, could have a breakout moment that has nothing to do with Trump. But without him there, it all feels a bit like a consolation match, with candidates competing to make up massive ground and no real way to get there.

“Everybody’s still trying to make a horse race out of horse manure,” Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said in a Monday video. “The fact that Donald Trump will not be on that stage just means that this debate means nothing to anyone. It is sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Also participating in this week’s prime-time event, hosted by Fox News: former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Trump seemingly hopes to draw attention away from the debate by sitting down for an interview with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson that will air simultaneously Wednesday on the social media network formerly known as Twitter. He is also set to turn himself in at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail on Thursday for the criminal charges he faces there, virtually ensuring that the media fixates on him instead of airing clips of his rivals.

Only in today’s Republican Party is getting arrested to step on your opponents’ coverage considered a smart political move.

A few GOP candidates have previewed their debate strategies, but with the exception of Trump antagonist Christie, these don’t entail attacking the race’s front-runner. Advisers affiliated with Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis super PAC that is legally barred from coordinating with the candidate, last week posted debate tips online, suggesting that DeSantis go after Ramaswamy instead of Trump.

Haley, who also served as South Carolina’s governor in the past, has similarly previewed potential attacks against Ramaswamy. The biotech millionaire is the only GOP hopeful — besides Trump, of course — who appears to be gaining in polls, making the political newcomer an easy target. Ramaswamy is coming off a tough week in which he’s had to defend comments on 9/11 and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitolremarks that his rivals are likely to bring up onstage.

Though many of the candidates are expected to focus on bashing President Joe Biden, there is little daylight between the Republicans in terms of policy — except on the topic of aid to Ukraine. DeSantis and Ramaswamy have sided with Trump in questioning U.S. support for defending the country against Russian aggression. Pence, Haley and the others back continued aid for Ukraine, putting them more in line with traditional GOP orthodoxy.

Four backbencher candidates didn’t make the cut for the debate: former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, conservative radio host Larry Elder and businessman Perry Johnson. Elder has threatened to sue the Republican National Committee — which set the polling and donor requirements to appear onstage — and Hurd has complained about the process.

“The lack of transparency and confusion around the RNC’s debate requirements is antithetical to the democratic process,” Hurd said in a statement Tuesday. “The American people deserve better.”

No word yet from Suarez, who previously said that candidates who don’t make the debate stage should drop out of the race.