GOP candidates prepare for the possibility Trump shows up at the debate after all

Donald Trump hasn’t committed to the first GOP presidential primary debate next week, but he’ll be there — whether it’s onstage or in his opponents’ heads.

The campaigns of four of the eight candidates who say they’ve qualified for the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee acknowledged to NBC News they’re holding debate prep sessions as if Trump will be there. A fifth candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said she expects Trump to be there. Meanwhile, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has dared Trump to show up and hurl insults in person: “Say it to my face.”

The focus on Trump in the run-up to the debate is a sign of the power he wields over the field and his potential to wreak havoc. With just more than a week before they step onto the highest-profile stage of the campaign yet, the GOP presidential candidates are still unsure of their precise target.

Odds are that even those who wouldn’t reveal their strategies are preparing for the possibility of Trump’s appearing, said Terry Sullivan, Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign manager during his 2016 presidential bid. Sullivan said candidates ought to be spending the bulk of their time preparing as if Trump will appear.

“There’s a 2% chance that Trump doesn’t show up,” said Sullivan, who was heavily involved in debate prep for Rubio, R-Fla., at the time. “And half of that involves him choking on a hamburger and being rushed to the hospital.”

Some are even riffing off Trump in the run-up to the debate. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ team has conducted internal polling in early states about whether Trump should participate. The polling showed support for Trump’s presence, sources close to the campaign said. DeSantis has been attacking Trump on the matter accordingly.

“Every candidate needs to be put to the test, and I think he needs to step up and do it,” DeSantis said last month.

At the same time, there’s a strong potential for DeSantis to take arrows either way, given his consistent second-place spot.

Trump, who faces three criminal indictments, has repeatedly said he wouldn’t debate because he’s so far ahead in polling. The RealClearPolitics polling average has Trump leading in national polls by nearly 40 points.

Yet Trump also toys with the idea, surveying live crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire. In an interview last week with Newsmax, Trump said he wouldn’t sign a pledge with the Republican National Committee to support the eventual nominee, even though it’s a requirement to participate in the primary debate.

“I have a problem with the debate for another reason: I wouldn’t sign the pledge,” Trump said.

The National Review, however, reported that Trump already signed a similar agreement when he filed for candidacy in South Carolina.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., June 13, 2023. (Andrew Harnik / AP file)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., June 13, 2023. (Andrew Harnik / AP file)

“[If] he’s not on that stage, then he’s taking the chance that everybody’s going to talk about his record and talk about why he’s not on that stage,” Haley said Saturday in an interview at the Iowa State Fair. “I’ve never known him to be scared of anything. We’ll see if he’s scared to get on a debate stage, but I would expect him to get up there.”

A Republican operative aligned with a rival candidate said everyone who will be onstage has to prepare for Trump.

“Whether or not he is there, his presence will still be largely looming over this entire debate. You are going to have to prepare like he’s in the room,” said the operative, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “And even if he isn’t, you’re going to have to prepare for the shadow that he casts over because he’s not in the room. And that’s what everybody’s going to want to talk about.”

Prayers, preparation and unpredictability 

Former Vice President Mike Pence opened a mock debate session Wednesday at his campaign headquarters in Carmel, Indiana, by praying with advisers Chip Saltsman, Steve DeMaura, Greg Jacob, Marc Short and Devin O’Malley. Jacob moderated, with Saltsman playing DeSantis, Short taking on the role of Haley, DeMaura standing in as businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and O’Malley acting as Christie.

But Trump’s unpredictability means recasting the campaign’s debate lineup in future run-throughs.

“We’ll have Trump in it next week,” a Pence aide said of the next scheduled practice debate.

Trump’s absence could make Pence a target for any attacks on Trump-Pence administration policies. Part of the challenge for Pence will be how to best project his message — that he’s both the most traditionally conservative candidate in the race and the grown-up in the room — while fighting for air time on a crowded stage, the aide said.

If Trump is there, sucking up oxygen, it could be more difficult for Pence to be heard without getting into a food fight that undermines the adult-in-the-room vibe he wants to adopt.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, has been engaged in a light debate about the debate with his own team as he tries to strike a balance between being ready for the live slugfest and maintaining his hallmark spontaneity.

Ramaswamy, who wants to avoid sounding rehearsed, has been practicing informally with adviser Tricia McLaughlin on flights but plans to add two more formal mock debate sessions to his schedule, he said in an interview. Like Pence, he is prepping for both Trump’s presence and his absence.

“Maybe we’ll do one with him and one without,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy declined to say whether there might be a target on DeSantis’ back. But he hinted it’s not his plan to go after him.

“I’m not commenting on anyone specifically,” Ramaswamy said, “but generally if somebody is defeating themselves, you let them do that on their own.”

He also said he is starting to think he will become a focus of other candidates trying to tear him down and give themselves a leg up because of a spate of negative stories about him popping up in the media, which he attributes to opposition research by other campaigns.

“There’s a good chance I will” be a target, he said. “We have experienced … a Niagara Falls-level ton of bricks falling on [us].”

DeSantis likely to be a main target

But when it comes to attacks, aides and operatives in most campaigns agree the bulk of the fire is likely to be trained on DeSantis — whether Trump is there or not. And if he is, Trump, a chief critic of DeSantis, is likely to lead the way.

DeSantis is preparing for attacks and has brought on a top Republican debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, who has worked with at least two GOP presidential nominees: Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, and the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He is running through question-and-answer sessions at least once a week and has said he’s preparing with and without Trump present.

Sources close to the DeSantis campaign say much of the strategy on the stage is to keep his message focused on President Joe Biden and to argue that he is the only candidate who can beat the president. DeSantis is also looking to bolster his campaign’s contention that it is a two-person race with Trump.

DeSantis has a history of being a policy wonk in preparing for debates. At prep sessions at the Capitol Hill Club during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis would often wave off his team of advisers on specific policy issues, telling them he understood the nuances and just needed help polishing his answers, according to two people who helped brief him that year.

“We did our debate prep at the Capitol Hill Club. After, like, the third one, he said, ‘I got all the policy; I just need to work on how to frame it,’” one of the advisers said.

Vinny Minchillo, a longtime Republican ad maker who has worked on five presidential campaigns, said setting specific goals for the first event should be top of mind for anyone on the debate stage.

DeSantis’ campaign has cut ads focused on his wife, Casey, and his family, but Minchillo said keeping that sort of imagery on a debate stage is a much different animal.

“You have to be who you are. You can’t be the Manchurian candidate,” he said. “If you are a wonky kind of guy, it’s best to be a wonky sort of person.”

Minchillo, whose most recent presidential campaign was Romney’s, said it’s important for someone like DeSantis to come off as personable.

“If I am Ron DeSantis’ team,” he said, “my goal is to just make him look like a carbon-based life form.”

The stakes are also high for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a largely unknown candidate whose early strategy rested heavily on qualifying for the first debate and using it to introduce himself to GOP primary voters. Burgum met the RNC’s unique donor threshold by offering $20 gift cards to those who contributed $1 to his campaign.

“He’s preparing for the debate not with debate coaches telling him what to say and how to say it, but by talking with voters and the media about the biggest issues that impact the largest numbers of Americans,” Burgum spokesperson Lance Trover said.

Even if Trump does stay away from the debate stage, candidates may still have to contend with him: He has indicated that if he skips the event, he might do some counterprogramming of his own.

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