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Trump Considers Skipping First GOP Presidential Primary Debates

Trump Contemplates Passing GOP Debates Due to Insurmountable Lead in Polls

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Former President Donald Trump has been both publicly and privately expressing his thoughts on skipping the first Republican presidential primary debates scheduled for this summer, causing division among his current and former advisers. Trump openly wonders why he should share the stage with other candidates when he is leading in the polls by 20 percentage points or more, all while potentially facing hostile questions from moderators. Taking to Truth Social, Trump wrote, ‘When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP & MAGA hating anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused?’ However, this strategy doesn’t come without risks.

The first debate will occur in August and could provide a platform for an alternative candidate to seize the spotlight, making a compelling case for the party to move on from Trump. David Urban, who advised Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, said, ‘He thinks he has this insurmountable lead, and it’s to everyone else’s benefit, but not his, to show up at these debates.’ Urban believes that Trump’s absence from the stage could backfire as the other candidates would take advantage, attacking him without a direct response.

Trump has been publicly toying with the idea of missing at least one of the first two scheduled GOP primary debates. The first debate is set to take place in Milwaukee in August, while the second debate’s date is yet to be decided but will be hosted at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Trump sees several reasons for not participating, the most significant being his substantial lead in polls.

A recent Fox News poll showed Trump leading Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by 32 percentage points. Reuters also released a poll that had Trump leading by 26 percentage points, and an NBC News poll put him ahead by 15 percentage points. One former Trump campaign advisor doubts Trump will attend, stating that it would only help the other candidates and Trump wouldn’t gain much from it. The advisor even mentioned Trump’s past debate performances as another reason, suggesting that he had little to gain from attending the primary debates.

Trump’s previous debate experiences have been far from smooth; in 2016, during the general election debates against Hillary Clinton, his performances were rocky. In his first encounter with Joe Biden in 2020, he frequently interrupted the Democrat candidate and drew negative attention by telling the Proud Boys to ‘stand back and stand by.’ Additionally, Trump tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after the debate.

Personal grievances also play a part in Trump’s consideration of skipping the first debate, which is to be hosted by Fox News. He has had a hot-and-cold relationship with the network since leaving office. Although Trump has appeared on TV with the network’s opinion hosts, such as Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, his campaign team still harbors resentment against Fox for calling Arizona in favor of President Biden on election night in 2020. Moreover, Trump missed the network’s 2016 debate due to conflict with then-anchor Megyn Kelly.

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Trump has also hinted at skipping the second debate, mentioning the Reagan Library’s connection with Fred Ryan, who is both publisher of The Washington Post and leader of the Library’s board of directors. However, some GOP strategists and Trump associates think that missing one or both debates could lead to adverse consequences for him and provide an opportunity for his challengers.

Alex Conant, who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, said, ‘I don’t think Trump has much to gain from a debate in August, assuming he’s still the prohibitive front-runner. But skipping the debate will give a lot of oxygen to his challengers.’ A debate stage without Trump would present a significant opportunity for other candidates to differentiate themselves and offer an alternative to the former president.

No candidate has more on the line in this scenario than Ron DeSantis, who consistently polls second behind Trump but has seen the former president’s lead increase in recent weeks. He and other potential candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence could take advantage of a debate without Trump to distinguish themselves without facing Trump’s direct criticism in real-time.

The former president’s legal baggage and the Republican losses in 2018, 2020, and 2022 under Trump’s party leadership would also be fair game in the debate, leaving Trump unable to defend himself. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, likely to reveal soon whether he will join the GOP primary field, has already indicated how Trump’s opponents could exploit his absence at the debate.

Talking to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, 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. But obviously, he’s afraid.’ One former Trump adviser believes Trump will ultimately see the merits of participating in the debates.

However, if Trump decides to opt-out, it would be in line with how he’s conducted his primary campaign so far, mostly dismissing any potential challengers. Trump attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in person earlier this year, but only virtually participated in an Iowa event hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which also featured multiple 2024 contenders.

In 2016, Trump skipped a primary debate hosted by Fox News due to a disagreement with Megyn Kelly after she questioned him about derogatory comments toward women during an earlier debate. In March 2016, Trump threatened not to participate in a CNN town hall interview, accusing the network of treating him unfairly.

Despite these instances, Trump went on to become the Republican nominee in 2016 and expects that his strategy will not negatively impact his voters’ opinions. Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, noted, ‘His premise that people who are front-runners generally avoid debates is correct. Trump knows that doing so deprives his opponents of an opportunity to take him on directly and burst his balloon.’

Trump’s past experiences in which he did not face penalties for skipping a debate in 2015 likely reinforces his belief that he won’t pay the price with voters for adopting this approach. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s decision to attend or skip the debates will significantly impact his chances in the 2024 Republican primaries.

 

 

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