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Republican candidates prepare for first debate — with or without Trump

Iowa voters react to latest Trump indictment
Iowa voters react to latest Trump indictment while other GOP candidates campaign at state fair 05:24

At least eight Republican presidential candidates say they've qualified for the first 2024 primary debate, which will be held in Milwaukee next week. 

The party's frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, leads the field in early-voting state polling by double digits, but said Sunday he would be skipping the debates, citing his lead in early polling. 

Top row from left, Sen. Tim Scott, Gov. Ron DeSantis, former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Bottom row from left, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy.
Top row from left, Sen. Tim Scott, Gov. Ron DeSantis, former President Donald Trump, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Bottom row from left, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Vivek Ramaswamy. AP

The other candidates say they've been preparing for a debate with or without him. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has consistently polled second behind Trump is steeling himself for attacks from other candidates.

The Republican National Committee set polling and fundraising benchmarks that candidates must meet by Aug. 21 to appear on the debate stage on Aug. 23: 40,000 individual campaign donors (including 20 states with at least 200 voters each) and at least 1% support in three national polls, or two national polls and one poll from an early presidential primary state. Candidates must also sign a "loyalty pledge" to support the Republican nominee.

Trump, DeSantis, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Doug Burgum say they've met the RNC's criteria. On Sunday, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said that seven candidates have met all the requirements to get on the debate stage — not including Trump.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez's campaign claimed Friday that he has qualified, but an RNC staffer familiar with the debate planning told CBS News that he has not officially made the debate yet. Other longshot candidates, such as former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and businessman Perry Johnson, have also claimed they have met the debate requirements.

"We've got some that are on the cusp. So we're going to be looking at polls the next few days or three or four that are waiting for 1% in one more national poll to make that debate stage," McDaniel told Fox News on Sunday about the debate lineup. 

Here's what we know about what the candidates are doing to prepare for the debate. 

Former President Donald Trump

Trump faces a deadline to surrender at the Fulton County Jail two days after the debate. He was indicted for the fourth time earlier this week in a sweeping racketeering case stemming from his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. 

On Sunday, Trump said he'd skip the primary debates. He instead has prerecorded an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which could run during the GOP debate on Carlson's X social media account, according to sources familiar with the planning. The timing for the airing of the Trump-Carlson interview has not been finalized yet, according to the sources.

Trump has suggested on several occasions that he's not inclined to debate. On Thursday night, he wrote a post on social media acknowledging that many have asked whether he'll debate. He noted his strong polling and added, "People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate?"

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

The first debate could be most important for DeSantis, who has trailed Trump in early state polling and is weeks into a so-called reset of his campaign after a sluggish start. He has repeatedly referred to this first debate as a "flashpoint" in the race, when Republican voters will start paying attention to the primary.

He anticipates that other candidates will target him and is getting ready for "non-stop" attacks, according to people familiar with DeSantis' debate strategy. 

In a pre-debate campaign memo sent on Saturday by DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier, he writes they're expecting attacks from other candidates. 

"The first debate is their biggest chance yet to grab headlines by attacking the governor, so we know they will try their best," Uthmeier writes about the other candidates. "In contrast, Governor DeSantis' objective in this debate will be to lay out his vision to beat Joe Biden, reverse American decline, and revive the American Dream."

Brett O'Donnell, a veteran Republican debate coach, has been brought on to help with DeSantis' campaign and has conducted weekly debate prep sessions with the governor. O'Donnell has years of experience in GOP debate prep, having helped Mitt Romney prepare in 2012, John McCain in 2008 and then-President George W. Bush in 2004. 

DeSantis has been goading Trump to come to the debate, arguing nobody is "entitled" to the GOP nomination. While Trump has benefited from a large lead in early state polling and drew a large crowd when he dropped by the Iowa State Fair, Trump has spent a fraction of the time that DeSantis and others have spent in Iowa. 

At the Iowa State Fair this month, DeSantis also criticized Trump for not signing the RNC's pledge to support the GOP nominee. "You've got to be willing to stand up and support the team. If someone's not willing to do that, that just shows you their campaign's more about them than the broader public and the American people," he told reporters.

A memo posted by a pro-DeSantis super PAC this week advised DeSantis to take a "sledge hammer" to Ramaswamy, and defend Trump "when Chris Christie attacks him."

"The stakes are highest for DeSantis. If Nikki Haley or Tim Scott have a mediocre debate, 'Oh well, they can get it the next time.' If DeSantis has a terrible debate, that's way more limiting," one DeSantis donor said. 

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott 

Scott plans to stick to his more positive brand on the debate stage and believes this will set him apart from the field. He has inched up in the polls, particularly in Iowa, and hewed to a message that criticizes Democrats while leaning into portraying his life as proof of the "American dream."

Scott has spent more on ads than any Republican running for president, focusing on markets in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first two GOP primaries will be held. His campaign will be airing a minute-long ad on Fox News right as the debate starts Wednesday, focused on Scott's self-described "optimistic" and "hopeful" message. 

He plans to be the "happy warrior" on stage, Scott told Breitbart News Radio. Asked by Fox News how Trump's presence would affect his strategy, Scott replied, "It doesn't change [it] much at all," but he said he hopes Trump does attend.

"He's a strong debater — without any question it will be entertaining… but the American people deserve to see every single one of us that qualifies for the debate stage on that debate stage talking about our vision for America," Scott said.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley

Haley has been getting ready for the debate by talking with voters, her advisers say. 

"She's been preparing for the past six months. Unlike other candidates out there, she's hosted dozens of town halls across South Carolina, across New Hampshire, across Iowa," a close Haley adviser told CBS News. 

Haley is expected to tout her foreign policy bona fides. As ambassador to the U.N. in the Trump administration, she likes to say she took the "Kick me sign" off America's back. 

Her campaign says "she wants to see everyone on that debate stage" because the American people have the right to hear from everyone — including her former boss. 

"I know Trump very well, and I know exactly what it gets under his skin, and I know exactly what he does," Haley told NBC News' Ali Vitali. 

She says she's been focusing on her campaign and not on Trump, but she opined that if "he's not on that stage, then he is taking the chance that everybody is going to talk about his record and why he is not on that stage."

"I have never known him to be scared of anything. We'll see if he is scared to be on the debate stage, but I would expect him to get up there," Haley added. 

Former Vice President Mike Pence

Pence was preparing for the debate stage for weeks before he qualified. His campaign began team sessions on Zoom about five weeks ago, according to a source on his campaign. 

He met the requirements for the debate stage on Aug. 7, after reaching the polling and donor thresholds. 

Greg Jacob, who served as a top lawyer to Pence during the Trump administration, has been leading the debate preparations for Pence at his campaign headquarters in Indiana. A team of five has held a handful of mock debates over the last two weeks, with one that included a stand-in for Trump. 

If Trump does show up for the debate, it will pit him against his former vice president — who refused to try to overturn the 2020 election during Congress' counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, despite an alleged pressure campaign by Trump. 

"I do hope he comes. I hope we have a fulsome debate. And I hope it's the beginning of a vigorous debate about the future of the country," Pence said in an address at the National Conference of State Legislatures Wednesday. 

Pence has lagged Trump in polling so far but has been in headlines recently after Trump's recent federal indictment in Washington, D.C., and state indictment in Georgia over his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

"The last three weeks, Pence has met the moment. He's done what has been required of him as the attention has shifted focus on him," a source on the campaign told CBS News.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Christie, who ran for president in 2016, is eager to debate next week. 

"The governor is the only person that's going to be on the debate stage outside Trump — if he shows up —that has been on that stage before," said Karl Rickett, a spokesperson for Christie. "That certainly gives him an advantage."

Christie may be hoping to reprise his debate performances from 2016. In an interview earlier this summer with Robert Costa on CBS's "Sunday Morning," he noted most observers at the time thought he did "extraordinarily well."

He was a bulldog in New Hampshire, tearing into Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during one debate, in which Rubio continued to repeat a line in his answers: "Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing; he knows exactly what he's doing." 

Christie memorably mocked Rubio as a robotic candidate who just had one "memorized 25-second speech." Rubio, in defending himself, uttered the line again, and Christie pounced. "There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech," Christie said. 

The attack and response was widely viewed by Republicans as a devastating exchange for Rubio, though Rubio has long said such assessments do not reflect what his campaign was able to achieve. 

This time, Christie is focused on Trump. "If you wanna be the man, Bob, you gotta beat the man," he told Costa, referring to Trump."I am absolutely ready for the first debate," he continued. "I know who I am. I'm incredibly comfortable with who I am. And I know what I want to say. And I know who I have to say it to."

Trump has wondered aloud if it "could be stupid" for him to participate in the debate, citing his strong lead so far. Christie is one of the few Republican candidates directly confronting Trump, calling him a "coward" if he doesn't come to the debate. But Christie also told Costa, "If he doesn't show up, it won't matter. Because I'll make sure that it is as if he is there."

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy has a novel approach to the debate — so far, he has not done any formal debate preparation. The author and entrepreneur is known to make remarks about policy and campaign points off the cuff. 

The campaign considered slowing Ramaswamy's packed schedule to accommodate debate preparation. He has blitzed early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but ultimately decided to forgo traditional debate prep to keep up with his demanding schedule. 

"He decided that what was most authentic to him and would be most productive would be for him to stick with his campaign schedule," Tricia McLaughlin, a senior campaign adviser said. "I think it would be a disservice for him to over-prep and be too produced. I think you could lose some of that authenticity." 

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

Burgum has not discussed his debate strategy, but the candidate insists campaigning makes for the best preparation. 

"This is not about locking yourself in a closet and rehearsing lines," Burgum told reporters at the Iowa State Fair last week. "I know people think performative politics is sort of the new norm, but I actually think that leadership begins with understanding the people that you're working for."

His campaign didn't respond to a request for comment on how Trump's presence would affect debate plans. But last week, Burgum suggested to reporters that Trump shouldn't be allowed to debate if he won't sign the pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee.

Burgum took an atypical route to securing his microphone on the Milwaukee debate stage: his campaign mailed a $20 Visa or Mastercard to tens of thousands of people who sent $1 to his campaign in order to help him meet the RNC's minimum donor requirements.

The businessman — who sold his software company to Microsoft in 2001 for over $1 billion — defended this ploy to CBS News.

"When nobody knows you and you're getting started," he said, "you put a product out there, and you offer it for a discount." 

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