One of the best blood sports in modern American politics has been Republican primary debates.
The last debates, in 2015, helped make Donald Trump the party’s biggest political titan since Ronald Reagan. Those same debates also caused Republican big shots like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker to crumble into obscurity.
But with Trump, now a former president but the overwhelming frontrunner, refusing to take the stage (and actually looking to subvert it), this opening event could look more like the WWE: Melodrama with pulled punches all for a race where the outcome appears to already have been written.
Here are five things you need to know about tonight’s spectacle (and about some people who won’t be there).
How will Trump “offstage” the debate?
The Republicans' reigning national champion and frontrunner won’t be on stage tonight. He still might steal the news cycle.
Trump did not qualify for the debate after refusing to sign a loyalty pledge to support the party’s nominee, whoever that may be, that was required of all participants. He now has announced he will not be participating in any debates, citing his commanding lead in current polls.
Instead, his campaign has their own plans for the evening. A pre-recorded interview with ousted Fox News host Tucker Carlson will be released around the time of the debate. Expect him to drop hot takes on Truth Social as well.
But his biggest show stealer likely will be Trump's turning himself in for his Georgia felony indictment on Thursday morning. The release of a mugshot, protest and media spectacle could relegate debate reactions to the second tier of media coverage, dampening any momentum its participants would have gotten.
How will the leaked DeSantis debate plan come into play?
Of the candidates that will actually take the stage, Florida’s governor is still leading the pack. But the gulf between him and Trump has only grown wider, making a masterclass performance on stage a requirement if his campaign is to have any shot.
The leak of a debate strategy memo courtesy of his own super PAC is already making this an uphill battle. It included several likely key objectives his team wanted him to bring to the fore during the debate, including attacking Vivek Ramaswamy, who's gaining on him in the polls, and defending Trump from attacks from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
While DeSantis claims to have not read the memo, its leaking gives every other contender ammunition to fire his way if he so much as inches in the direction of one of the talking points outlined in it.
Political analysts have argued it also gave Ramaswamy a shield from DeSantis. Any attack can be responded with, “Did your PAC tell you to say that, Ron?”
The memo mentioned the late conservative media guru Roger Ailes’ Orchestra Pit Theory: If two debaters talk about policy and the other makes a massive gaffe, like falling into an orchestra pit, the media will focus primarily on the gaffe. The leaked memo has left him surrounded by pits that only he can fall into.
Who is going to defend Trump?
It’s telling of the state of the race that two of the most important things to keep in mind while watching has to do with someone who won’t even be there.
The debate creates an unavoidable forum where those that have criticized him will place the others in the undesirable situation of having to either attack a candidate that Republican voters mostly view favorably or play defense for something they are supposed to be trying to beat.
Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has criticized Trump on the campaign trail, and have committed or hinted they will continue to do so tonight. This could create a controversy in Republican circles that will require one of the MAGA-sympathetic candidates to challenge.
The leaked DeSantis memo included that he should defend Trump from Christie’s attacks, but suggest he can carry Trump’s movement without the baggage. It’s likely that others will try to thread that needle as well.
Whether a candidate attacks Trump, defends him or avoids the issue like the plague should illuminate why they are in this race.
Guess $20 gift cards can’t win you a debate spot
Trump won’t be the only Florida man skipping out on the debate, but at least he made that choice.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez failed to qualify. Those paying attention to his campaign may have thought the opposite.
He previously made public statements that he did qualify, but anonymous Republican National Committee members told the Associated Press last week that he in fact did not. The party’s debate lineup announcement on Monday confirmed he was out.
That's a near-certain death blow for an already long-shot campaign, in which making the first debate stage was the goal. You don’t shell out $20 gift cards for $1 donations to meet the debates’ donor requirements if you aren’t willing to get there at any cost.
Suarez said earlier this month that those that don’t qualify for the stage should drop out of the race. Will he be waving the white flag soon? As several consultants have said of Suarez’s future prospects, he could have a long career as a lobbyist ahead of him.
Can Democrats make a DeSantis counterpoint?
The DeSantis campaign’s messaging strategy has included many references to his record as Florida’s governor, promising to bring his success here to the national level. Expect this message to flavor a lot of his speaking time during the debate.
But national Democrats and the Biden campaign have been focusing more of their attention on DeSantis’ Florida. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has leaned into criticism of DeSantis and the direction he is taking the state. And Vice President Kamala Harris has taken to criticizing Florida’s governor.
The Florida Democratic Party, which took a shellacking from DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida in the 2022 election, also has shifted to being more confrontational with him under new chair Nikki Fried.
Expect the liberal wing of X – the social media platform formerly known as Twitter – to be hopping with reaction to DeSantis’ comments about his record. If the governor gains traction in the debate by relying on that message, expect national Dems to mobilize even more against him.