Eight Republican hopefuls will take the stage Wednesday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the first GOP primary debate for the 2024 election cycle—absent Donald Trump, the party’s far-and-away frontrunner despite a quartet of criminal indictments stacked against him.
An internal memo and public jabs in the days leading up to the debate have given a glimpse into what’s to come, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy expected to be at each other’s throats.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of debate time.
Where to watch
Wednesday’s debate at Fiserv Forum will begin at 9 p.m. EST on the Fox News Channel with live coverage commencing an hour prior.
Grab some coffee—Wednesday’s primetime event is expected to wrap up at 11 p.m., but early-primary debates are notorious for running later than planned.
Who will be on stage
As notable as those who will be on stage is who isn’t attending at all. Trump, the Republican frontrunner, says he won’t participate in any primary debates.
Instead, Wednesday’s clash will feature eight other hopefuls: DeSantis, Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former vice president Mike Pence, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
The debate will be moderated by Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.
While Trump won’t be in attendance, his presence will be felt. He reportedly pre-recorded an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that’s scheduled to go live online Wednesday night around the time of the debate, and he’s sure to be the center of discussion among candidates hoping to unseat him from his perch.
What to watch for
DeSantis’ campaign has been faltering for months, plagued by a string of layoffs, a dizzying fight against Disney, and his struggles with connecting with voters on the ground in key early-voting states. Despite a lackluster summer, he’s still polling in second behind Trump, but it's becoming an increasingly-distant second.
A cringey internal memo from DeSantis’ Super PAC didn’t help matters last week. It indicated that DeSantis would try to differentiate himself from Trump in Wednesday’s debate without alienating the former president’s rabid right-wing base. The memo also advised DeSantis to “take a sledgehammer” to Ramaswamy by calling him “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.”
On Twitter, Ramaswamy mocked the strategy as “boring,” calling DeSantis “Robot Ron” for “taking lame, pre-programmed attack lines against me.”
Ramaswamy has grabbed headlines for his far-out proposals like raising the voting age to 25. He’s a staunch Trump defender and political outsider who said he skipped formal debate practice sessions because he doesn’t want to be “overly prepared.”
Only Christie and Pence have participated in a presidential-level debate before, possibly giving them a leg up as they battle for speaking time. Debate strategy for the duo is expected to center around the same point they’ve used to solicit donations: that Trump and his growing list of criminal charges aren’t fit for the white house.
Christie, a Trump ally turned antagonist, called the former president a “certified loser” and “verified coward” for refusing to debate.
How candidates qualified
With every Republican candidate not named Trump dragging in polls, the RNC established fairly lax requirements to qualify for the debate.
Candidates had to poll at just one percent in three national polls, or at one percent in two national polls plus the same in at least one early-state poll. They had to have a minimum of 40,000 unique donors, including at least 200 unique donors per state. Each candidate was also ordered to sign a pledge agreeing that they’d support the eventual party nominee.
Reaching the qualifications was a struggle for some. Pence only made it after a surge of donations following Trump’s indictment in Georgia, qualifying a month later than Christie despite announcing his candidacy just a day later.
Hutchinson didn’t eclipse the required 40,000 unique donors until Saturday night while became eligible after he promised $20 gift cards to any donor that helped him qualify—no matter how small their donation was.
Among the candidates who didn’t make the cut were Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, businessman Perry Johnson, pastor and business executive Ryan Binkley, and talk show host Larry Elder.
Suarez said earlier this month that anyone who didn’t qualify should drop out of the race entirely.
“If you can't meet the minimum thresholds, you shouldn't be trying to take the time involved away from being productive,” Suarez said at the Iowa State Fair. He later added, “I don't think candidates should just sort of linger around.”
Debate format and topics
There will be no opening statements from each candidate, with the debate moving to questions directly after introductions.
Candidates will be given one minute to respond to questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups. The debate will close with brief closing statements capped at 45 seconds per candidate.
“Best efforts will be made to ensure a fair and robust discussion, giving every candidate the opportunity to answer questions and react to others,” said a memo from Fox News given to debate participants.
While a list of debate topics has not been published by Fox News, moderator Baier told Deadline that it “will be interesting” to see how candidates react to questions about Trump’s indictments.
“In the GOP primary, we have seen these indictments increase his polling numbers, increase his fundraising,” he said. “How others react to it and how differently they approach it will be a part of this primary and this debate.”
MacCallum, the debate’s second moderator, told TVNewser that they also have questions lined up about abortion and the country’s role in assisting Ukraine fight against Russian invaders.