While the field of participants in the first Republican National Committee presidential candidates’ debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee is essentially settled, the runup to the event is overshadowed by who might ditch it altogether and turn it into a meaningless gathering playing to a depressed viewing audience.
It is yet another instance of the long shadow cast by former president Donald Trump — the runaway leader in polling — who stands astride the political landscape sucking up the oxygen and blotting out the sun his competition desperately needs to remain viable.
Greater media attention has been directed toward Trump as a potential no-show rather than the other six candidates who appear to have achieved the fund raising and poll support criteria to qualify.
Trump — in character — has milked the speculation for all it’s worth, hinting he is inclined to skip the event rather than attract an audience for competitors who trail him by as much as 30 to 50 points and who will gang up on him on the debate stage.
There is, though, the matter of Trump’s massive ego, a personal trait so dominant it will convince him to take the stage and prove he can overcome a deck stacked against him.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — Trump’s erstwhile best buddy turned most severe antagonist — is of that view, seeing a debate format as his opportunity to separate from the rest of the field by laying into the former president on policy, issue and personal grounds.
As conventional wisdom strategy, snubbing the debate makes sense. It’s highly unlikely to undermine his base of support while portraying the debate as a group discussion of also-rans.
His challengers, for instance, have spent months chipping away at Trump to no avail. In the latest Real Clear Politics polling average, support for his opponents ranges from one percent to 19 percent while he stands at 50 percent. There’s been no appreciable movement by any and Christie — despite his increasingly harsh attacks — polls at 2.5 percent, good for seventh place.
Given that recent history, Trump and his advisers perceive no compelling rationale for exposing him to a potential six-on-one street brawl.
Christie is the more accomplished and polished debater — glib, rhetorically nimble and with a matching ego. He and Trump both possess hair trigger tempers and flamethrower vocabularies which — when stoked — place the debate in peril of devolving into a cacophony of shouts, interruptions and talk overs while the remainder of the field are turned into a chorus of supporting bystanders. Their already steep hill to climb will be made even steeper.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest competitor at 30 points behind but the only other candidate with double digit polling support, will likely attempt to join in pummeling Trump but his will merely be another voice playing second fiddle behind Christie.
The former New Jersey governor has spent every working day since his June 4 candidacy announcement ratcheting up his attacks on Trump, often in highly personal terms while justifying his rhetoric as the only behavior the ex-president understands.
His language fell into juvenile bravado, though, when he challenged Trump to a bareknuckle, no holds barred face off in the Octagon — the steel cage arena in mixed martial arts matches — and promised to “kick his a –.”
While it may make for entertaining television, the impact in terms of impressing voters or presenting a Republican vision for the nation’s future will be non-existent. The nation’s most persistent and worrisome problems — inflation, economic growth, cost of living, crime, immigration reform, etc. — will receive largely perfunctory attention.
To be sure, watching Trump and Christie go nose to nose is more compelling than an exchange between former vice president Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott over the most effective method to address climate change.
Should Trump decide to pass on the debate, Christie has promised to try him in absentia with the lines of attack he’s followed since he entered the race.
The strategy employs the old ploy of placing an empty chair on the debate stage and, while understandable, is a weak substitute for personal confrontation. Any hope by Christie that his performance will vault him from seventh place over the others is seriously misplaced. In fact, the end result is unlikely to fulfill the consultants cherished goal — “move the numbers.”
The debate is unlikely to winnow the field — that will come later — although a poor performance or a major blunder could adversely impact crucial fund-raising and raise doubts about readiness to deal with the demands and stresses of leading the nation.
Executives at Fox News Channel, the debate hosts, surely must send up a prayer each morning that Trump will participate, understanding that his absence will seriously diminish interest and whatever credit the network receives for hosting the first debate of the 2024 campaign season will slip quietly into irrelevancy.
If his lead holds up and he loses no significant ground, Trump’s presence at future debates is very much in question; a simple matter of nothing to lose and much to gain by sitting them ouA mercifully anonymous reporter long ago explained political debates this way: “People watch them the way they watch the Indy 500; not to see who wins but who crashes and burns coming out of the fourth turn.”
If Trump shows up, the debate moderator might want to substitute his welcoming remarks with “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.