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What the dynamic of tomorrow's GOP debate will be like without Trump


When Republican presidential hopefuls take the stage in Milwaukee tomorrow night, there will be one notable absence - former President Donald Trump. Trump has made it clear he sees no need to participate in this first primary debate. The party's solid front-runner is also facing indictments in four jurisdictions. Those cases are related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and other matters. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Milwaukee, that sets up a challenging dynamic for the eight candidates who will be onstage.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Think back with me, if you will, eight years ago. There was a huge field of Republican candidates, and Donald Trump was dominating the conversation. Here's my colleague Don Gonyea reporting on a Republican primary debate in September 2015.


DON GONYEA: ...The moderator, Jake Tapper from CNN. First question - he went to the other candidates and asked them about Trump. Two of the candidates on this early stage, this undercard, took the bait.

MCCAMMON: That debate included an undercard competition for lower performers in the polls, what a lot of reporters dubbed the kid table. This year, in a sense, the whole debate is the undercard. As Trump noted in a post over the weekend on the conservative social media platform Truth Social, he has a double-digit lead in the polls, and he says he won't participate.

SCOTT WALKER: I think it's a shame.

MCCAMMON: That's former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, now president of Young America's Foundation. Walker, who launched his own short-lived campaign for the 2016 nomination, was on stage with Trump eight years ago.

WALKER: Clearly, he's made his intentions known for Wednesday. He even suggests he's not going to any of the debates. I think that's a mistake. I think voters in general, particularly younger voters, want to hear from President Trump and the other candidates.

MCCAMMON: Walker says Trump's absence could create an opening for other candidates to stand out, and they'll have a decision to make about whether and how to go after the front-runner, says Thomas Holbrook, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

THOMAS HOLBROOK: It's a tricky thing. It's trickier for some than for others.

MCCAMMON: Holbrook notes that a couple of candidates, like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have gone after Trump directly.

HOLBROOK: But on the other hand, the others who, by and large, have been pretty supportive of President Trump - that doesn't help sort of distinguish them from the president very much on anything.

MCCAMMON: Holbrook says that's been true for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who's often modeled himself after Trump while also trying to position himself as a replacement for the former president. As Trump's rivals prepare to debate here, some Wisconsin Republicans are calling on the candidates to directly challenge his false claims about the election.

REID RIBBLE: At some point, you have to take President Trump on.

MCCAMMON: Reid Ribble is a former Republican congressman.

RIBBLE: They're in a difficult spot, and they have to navigate it. But the best way, in my opinion, to navigate it is by telling the truth.

MCCAMMON: Ribble made that point in a column published this month in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which he co-wrote with another Republican, former Wisconsin State Senator Kathy Bernier. Bernier says Republican voters need to know that President Biden won the 2020 election and that the election system is trustworthy. And they need to hear it from Republican candidates.

KATHY BERNIER: The messenger is important. Donald Trump might not believe what the election results said, but all of these people are going to.

MCCAMMON: Instead of the debate, Trump will appear in a taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Wednesday. That's one day before the former president is scheduled to travel to Georgia to be formally booked on the felony charges he's facing there. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.