Mock debates. Campaign staffers pretending to be fierce rivals. Playbooks full of strategies and talking points.
These are all tactics presidential campaigns use to get candidates ready for debate night. As the first Republican primary debate approaches on Wednesday in Milwaukee, the crowded field of GOP hopefuls will make their pitch to voters − and target their rivals on a national stage.
But how are these candidates preparing for the first 2024 debate? What are their strengths as they gear up for the event? And more importantly, what are their weaknesses?
Reporters from the USA TODAY Network reached out to a slate of Republican presidential candidates to see how they’re hoping to compete this week. Here’s a peek at their plans.
2024: The final lineup for the first Republican debate is here. No, Donald Trump won’t be there.
Ron DeSantis: ‘Knives out’
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis brought in Brett O’Donnell, who did debate prep for former President George W. Bush, former Arizona Sen. John McCain and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, to serve as his debate coach.
The Florida governor’s campaign declined to give details about DeSantis’ debate prep, other than to say he’s preparing for attacks.
“Every candidate on and off the debate stage will have their knives out for Ron DeSantis because they know this is a two-man race,” said DeSantis Communications Director Andrew Romeo.
A pro-DeSantis super PAC posted a proposed debate strategy online, in an apparent attempt to communicate with the campaign without violating election rules. The debate memo from Never Back Down suggested that DeSantis defend former President Donald Trump, attack President Joe Biden and go after Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who has been rising in the polls. It also suggested “showing emotion.”
The memo speaks to DeSantis’ challenges in the race, from navigating Trump’s popularity to dealing with his own deficiencies as a candidate, namely questions about his awkwardness and likability.
Using the plan outlined in the memo – after it was publicly reported − could make him seem more awkward, though.
“Now, if and when (DeSantis) does any of these things in next week’s debate, he’ll look utterly inauthentic,” David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist and a CNN analyst, wrote on social media last week. “It’s insane!”
DeSantis distanced himself from the super PAC’s debate advice, telling Fox News Digital over the weekend that “the memo is not mine. I haven’t read it.”
Mike Pence: ‘Be willing to square off’
Former Vice President Mike Pence and aides said he is preparing for this week’s debate the way he approached one-on-one vice presidential debates in 2016 and 2020, with an emphasis on parrying attacks from opponents and raising questions about the other GOP candidates.
“I’ve had a little bit of experience with nationally televised debates,” Pence said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s different with a group on stage.”
The Pence campaign declined to provide details on his specific preparations, including reports he has held mock debates, with at least one including a Trump stand-in.
Greg Jacob, who served as a top lawyer to Pence during the Trump administration, has been helping with debate preparations, along with Pence’s veteran staff.
The former vice president, who has adopted a more feisty campaign style in recent weeks, told ABC that “I’m just going to be me.” He said he hoped Trump would show up, but he plans to confront other Republican challengers in any case.
“I think every one of us that have qualified for that debate stage ought to be on the stage, be willing to square off, answer the tough questions, and also draw a bright line contrast,” Pence said.
Nikki Haley: ‘Give the true answers’
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has been preparing for the debate since the start of her campaign.
“Debate prep for me was the 80 town halls I did in Iowa and New Hampshire, where we let everybody ask whatever question they wanted. You know, you get the hard questions. You have to give the true answers.” Haley told Fox News.
“That’s the best debate prep I could hope for. So we are looking forward to going and being on that debate stage, letting everybody see the options,” she continued.
Haley said she plans to present her “vision” during the debate, focusing on conservative priorities from reducing government spending to securing the southern border.
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is also expected to tout her foreign policy credentials. On the campaign trail, Haley has expressed strong support for continued U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, an issue that has divided the Republican presidential field.
Tim Scott: ‘It’s game time’
Sen. Tim Scott is one of the main contenders to watch Wednesday, as many political observers agree that he has a chance to break through the noise.
The 57-year-old South Carolina lawmaker has leaned into his faith and being the nice guy for much of the Republican primary, and onlookers can expect that sunny personality to shine during the first GOP debate.
“Tim Scott will share his positive, conservative message on the debate stage in Milwaukee,” Scott campaign spokesperson Nichole Morales told USA TODAY.
Scott, who is polling third in Iowa, has been consistent in casting Biden and the Democrats as taking the country down the wrong path, but he hasn’t been afraid to contrast himself with the other GOP hopefuls.
In July, for instance, Scott scolded DeSantis over Florida’s new school standards, which teach that Black people may have benefited from slavery by “developing skills” that could be used for their personal advantage.
“There is no silver lining in slavery,” Scott told reporters after a town hall in Ankeny, Iowa.
Scott wants to break through the rest of the field with voters and donors looking for a positive alternative to the Trump-DeSantis feud.
Doug Burgum: ‘People getting to know who we are’
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has revealed little about his debate preparation process, instead saying he’s focused on addressing “real people” while on stage.
“I think about those people when I’m on the debate stage as opposed to trying to design answers for Washington insiders,” Burgum told Politico last week. “I’m running for the people out there that are getting crushed under this current economy.”
“There’s a long litany of people (candidates) that have gone in a room and tried to memorize lines and cram for finals, that have come out frozen,” he added. “When we’re talking to people on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire they’re talking to me about how Biden inflation is choking them, they’re not asking me about what I’m doing on debate prep.”
In measuring success after the debate, Burgum has said the outcome will depend in part on how well he is able to boost his name recognition and help solve “the Doug, who? Problem.”
“We’re in a very different spot than almost anybody else on the stage, because virtually everyone else has got almost 100% name recognition, and we’re a long way from that. I mean we’re at the other end of that spectrum. So, for us part of it is just people getting to know who we are,” Burgum told Politico.
Vivek Ramaswamy: ‘Doing things a little bit differently’
Biotechnology entrepreneur Vivek Ramasway’s campaign told USA TODAY that his plan on debate night will be to introduce himself to the American people.
Ramaswamy made that clear in an interview with Fox News last week, when he said his pre-debate schedule consisted of visiting Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire and other states.
“That will take me right to the doorstep of the debate,” Ramaswamy said. “So that gives you a sense of maybe how I’m doing things a little bit differently than other candidates.”
Ramaswamy’s campaign told Fox News that the businessman has been “cramming in a lot of foreign policy briefings and spars with staff during flights,” but he isn’t taking part in any mock debates like some of his rivals.
The candidate also told the outlet he’s focused on is not being “overly prepared.” Ramaswamy shared a video on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, this week showing him playing tennis.
“Three hours of solid debate prep this morning,” Ramaswamy joked.
Asa Hutchinson: Tell the truth about Trump
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson plans to be a prosecutor on the debate stage and tell the truth about Trump.
“Whether he’s there or not, he will be a focal point of issue,” Hutchinson told MSNBC, before the former president announced that he would not attend the debate.
Hutchinson has also said that his strategy is to be authentic and clear in his positions
“There’s gonna be a lot of difference between the candidates,” Hutchinson told NBC News. “We’re going to showcase those differences and I think that you’ll see that…my message will be something that captures the imagination for the future.
Chris Christie: ‘Call them out’
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is keeping his debate strategy simple.
“I’ll listen to the questions, answer them directly and honestly. And if someone up there says something that I believe is dishonest, to call them out on it. That’s it. I don’t have any more complicated strategy than that,” he told CNN.
“All the people are going through all these strategy memos stuff and coming up with canned lines and all the rest of it. I’ve watched that canned line thing. It doesn’t work all that well,” he added.
Christie has long called on Trump to participate in the debate, saying if the former president doesn’t show up, he’s a ‘coward.’
“Either way, I’ll be there telling the truth for 90 minutes,” he said earlier this month.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republican debate 2023: DeSantis, Christie and other GOP hopefuls prep