Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a fierce Ron DeSantis critic, qualifies for GOP presidential debate

NEW YORK (AP) — Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Friday that he has qualified for next week’s Republican presidential debate, becoming the ninth White House hopeful to meet the fundraising and polling thresholds required to participate in the opening face-off of the 2024 campaign.

Suarez, 45 and the only Hispanic in the field, will be perhaps the least-known Republican on the stage Wednesday in Milwaukee. But with an audience expected of more than 10 million viewers, he said the debate will give him equal footing to contrast his personality against his higher-profile opponents. He argued that he is uniquely positioned to help the Republican Party reach out to Hispanic and younger voters in particular.

“Oftentimes, it’s not policy because we agree, by and large about policy, right? It’s personality, dynamism. It’s the ability to connect,” he told The Associated Press in an interview confirming his debate attendance.

So far, nine candidates say they have met the debate qualifications, although former President Donald Trump has indicated he may not attend. To qualify for the prime-time debate, candidates need to satisfy polling and donor requirements set by the Republican National Committee: at least 1% in three high-quality national polls or a mix of national and early-state polls and a minimum of 40,000 donors, with 200 in 20 or more states.

Suarez said he met the donor threshold earlier in the month and just hit the polling requirement.

Since starting his campaign two months ago, Suarez has emerged as a fierce critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another presidential candidate, while largely avoiding direct criticism of Trump. The mayor hinted he may do the same of the debate stage.

In Friday’s interview, Suarez dismissed questions about the latest Trump indictment, this one in Georgia for alleged racketeering related to the 2020 election.

“It’s not something voters are talking about,” he said before turning to his planned strategy for the debate. “From my perspective, I want to spend as little amount of time talking about the former president. He’s capable of handling himself, defending himself.”

Suarez indicated he would not shy away from questions about DeSantis.

Specifically, Suarez referenced a trove of documents posted online this week by a pro-DeSantis super political action committee offering detailed guidance for the governor’s debate strategy.

Among other things, one strategy memo outlined “four basic must-dos.” They call for DeSantis to defend Trump “in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack,” “hammer Vivek Ramaswamy in a response,” state his own positive vision two to three times, and attack President Joe Biden and the media three to five times. Christie is a former New Jersey governor; Ramaswamy is biotech entrepreneur.

“The poor guy can’t get out of his own way. You see the leaked memo. It’s just one misstep after another,” Suarez said of DeSantis, suggesting that DeSantis’ divisive approach to leadership would be further exposed during the debate.

“You’ve got to be able to create coalitions and you’ve got to bring people together. The country’s broken divided, How are you going to unify the country? And I don’t think he’s displaying those characteristics,” Suarez said.

The Miami mayor has been one of the more creative candidates in his efforts to boost his donor numbers to meet the debate thresholds.

He offered a chance to see soccer legend Lionel Messi’s debut as a player for Inter Miami, saying donors who gave $1 would be entered in a chance to get front-row tickets. Suarez also took a page from North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s campaign playbook by offering a $20 “Bidenomics Relief Card” in return for $1 donations. A super PAC supporting Suarez launched a sweepstakes for a chance at up to $15,000 in tuition, in exchange for a $1 donation to Suarez’s campaign.

Suarez said he assumes that Trump, the current front-runner, will not participate in the debate.

Trump has been threatening to boycott the event for weeks. He argues that it makes little sense for someone so far ahead in the polls at this point to subject himself to the inevitable onslaught of attacks. Trump said he would make an announcement this week and hinted at his thinking in a social media post Thursday evening.

“People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate?” he asked. “I’M YOUR MAN.”

Trump’s team has been discussing potential alternative programming, including the possibility of a competing interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Suarez said Trump’s absence would represent an “amazing” opportunity for Suarez.

“Just do the math, right? You’re talking about nine versus eight, and of course it’s the person who’s No. 1 in the polls,” Suarez said. “So I think the fact that you have someone like that that’s not on the debate stage, for a guy like me, that’s incredibly helpful.”

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