Trump’s shadow hangs over Republican debates even as he refuses to attend | Republicans [wafact]

Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination reacted in mostly muted fashion to his declaration that he will skip all the party’s primary debates, not just the first in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Trump’s team have strategized that as the overwhelming frontrunner, the former president would gain little from appearing on stage with his many rivals. At the same time, his legal team are likely wary Trump may be tempted to wade into subject matter at the heart of proliferating legal cases against him.

Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest if distant rival, insisted: “No one is entitled to this nomination, including Donald Trump. You have to show up and earn it.”

But while Trump is betting that not showing up will not hurt him with voters – and that his son Donald Trump Jr will prove an effective media surrogate in Milwaukee – DeSantis has a pressing need to earn support. With his campaign widely seen to be tanking, the hard-right Florida governor will take the stage in Wisconsin on Wednesday with serious work to do.

In a Sunday night post to his online platform, Truth Social, Trump cited a CBS News poll that gave him a 46-point national lead. Bragging of “legendary numbers”, he said: “The public knows who I am and what a successful presidency I had … I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”

Fox News will host the first debate. Executives have reportedly beseeched Trump to attend. On Monday, CNN reported that an unnamed Trump adviser said the former president could still participate in a later debate, but also that Trump has long been against participating in the second scheduled debate, at the Ronald Reagan library in California next month.

Trump, 77, faces 91 criminal charges under four indictments arising from his first run for president, in 2016; his attempt to stay in power after losing to Joe Biden in 2020; and his actions after leaving the White House.

The charges concern hush-money payments to a porn star, federal and state election subversion, and retention of classified documents. Trump also faces civil cases concerning his business affairs and defamation linked to an allegation of rape. Trials are due during the primary next year.

Despite it all, Trump enjoys huge leads in national and key state polls. On Sunday, the national poll by CBS News showed Trump with a whopping 62% support to 16% for DeSantis and other challengers trailing. On Monday, NBC News and the Des Moines Register gave Trump a 23-point lead over DeSantis in Iowa, the first state to vote. Among evangelical Christians, a key voting bloc, the thrice-married, adjudicated rapist led by 27.

On Saturday, it was reported that Trump had already recorded the interview with the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson he plans to use as counter-programming to the Milwaukee debate.

Among Trump’s Republican rivals, notwithstanding a warning from the rank outsider Will Hurd that “kissing his butt is not going to help you win”, reaction to Trump’s debate avoidance plans remained muted at best.

Mike Pence, formerly vice-president to Trump, echoed the chairperson of the Republican National Committee when he told ABC News: “One thing I realised about him is it’s not over till it’s over. So I’m actually still hoping he shows up.”

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But observers expect his father’s absence to recalibrate the dynamics of the debate, DeSantis becoming top dog on stage and therefore the top target for takedowns even from Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who has built his campaign in opposition to Trump and who has called the former president a coward for skipping debates.

On Monday, Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur who has gone from wide outsider to contender for second place, aimed a warmup barb at DeSantis when he said: “We don’t need another career politician beholden to the donor class sitting in the White House. Cronyism leads to corruption. The choice for GOP primary voters: Do we want Super Pac puppets? Or patriots who speak the TRUTH?”

According to Axios, James Uthmeir, DeSantis’s new campaign manager, used a memo to donors and supporters to warn that the Milwaukee debate would be other candidates’ “biggest chance yet to grab headlines by attacking the governor, so we know they will try their best”.

Uthmeir also offered a touch of optimism.

“We all know why our competitors have to go down this road,” he said. “Because this is a two-man race for the Republican nomination between Governor DeSantis and Donald Trump.”

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