By James Oliphant and Gram Slattery
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The first Republican debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign is shaping up as a crucial moment for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who badly needs some momentum in his challenge to former President Donald Trump for the party’s nomination.
Complicating the matter for DeSantis: Trump, by far the front-runner in the race for the right to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden, appears unwilling to provide him with a target.
Trump has said he plans to skip the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee. If that happens, DeSantis himself likely would become the focus of attacks from other candidates looking to climb past him and brand themselves as voters’ primary alternative to Trump, according to interviews with rival campaigns, Republican political advisers and a former presidential candidate.
A Republican strategist close to Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is also seeking the nomination, said the field is likely to treat Trump “gingerly” and instead train their fire on DeSantis, who is expected to occupy the center slot on the stage.
“The guy on the stage in the No. 1 spot is probably going to be taking more heat than the others,” said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity and was offering his views on the Republican field in general and not about Haley’s strategy in particular.
Rival campaigns smell blood in the water as DeSantis has faced questions over profligate campaign spending and his readiness for the national stage.
In the most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, released last week, Trump held 47% of the Republican vote nationally, with DeSantis dropping 6 percentage points from July down to just 13%. None of the other candidates due to attend the debate have broken out of single digits.
Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, the biggest individual donor to a group supporting the DeSantis presidential bid, told Reuters on Friday he will not donate more money unless the Florida governor attracts new major donors and adopts a more moderate approach.
Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate who participated in a series of debates in the 2012 election, said DeSantis will need to be ready for an “onslaught” of attacks.
During the early primaries when Santorum briefly held center stage as the front-runner, he was widely viewed as having a tough night trying to defend his record in Congress.
“I didn’t prepare to be the center of attention,” Santorum said. “I didn’t prepare enough for the attacks and where the attacks were going to come from. And it cost me.”
The DeSantis campaign declined to comment on his debate preparations.
A former U.S. Navy attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, DeSantis can be an effective sparring partner, said Justin Sayfie, who served as a top adviser to Republican Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and presidential candidate.
“I have to believe he will be well prepared to punch back hard when he gets punched,” Sayfie said.
THE TRUMP QUANDARY
Beyond Trump and DeSantis, at least five other candidates appeared to be on track to qualify for the debate: Haley, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, U.S. Senator Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Former Vice President Mike Pence had struggled to reach the debate’s requirement of 40,000 individual donors, but Fox News, which is hosting the debate, reported late on Monday that he had met the threshold and would join the others on stage.
Trump has questioned whether he should show up and lend their candidacies credence. His absence would present a quandary for his lesser-known rivals as they get a chance to introduce themselves to a national television audience of millions: Do they attack Trump in absentia with no risk of return fire or do they focus on those on stage?
With the exception of Christie and Pence, Republican candidates largely have stood by Trump as he has faced a mounting wave of legal troubles, the most recent a four-count federal indictment for conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
DeSantis has largely avoided talking specifics about the latest Trump case, but he has criticized the process as “politicized” and implied he would pardon Trump. While Trump does not feature in stump speeches by DeSantis, the governor in recent weeks has subtly upped his criticisms of the former president’s conduct when questioned about him on the campaign trail.
In an excerpt of an interview with NBC News to be aired on Monday, DeSantis said that Trump “of course” lost the 2020 election to Biden. Trump has made false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud, a view embraced by many Republican voters.
Santorum said the candidates need to take advantage of the moment to go after the front-runner – Trump – and try to peel off some of his support.
“If I was on that stage, I would be going after Trump,” Santorum said. “That’s where the votes are.”
Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates at the University of Michigan, agreed.
“When Trump is not on the stage, it’s time to do it. It’s then or never,” Kall said. “It’s easier when he’s not there, to not have to look him in the eye.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant and Gram Slattery; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Will Dunham, Alistair Bell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)