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GOP presidential candidates will debate in Milwaukee but Trump won't be there

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back here in the U.S., Republican candidates are expected to gather on stage in Milwaukee this week for the first big debate of the 2024 presidential race. To qualify, candidates must draw donations from 40,000 individuals and reach 1% support in several polls by today. So while we don't know exactly how many candidates will make the cut, there is one thing we do know. The front-runner won't be there. Former President Donald Trump says he's going to skip Wednesday's debate in favor of an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. So how should we think about this? We called Republican strategist Scott Jennings to get his take. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Hey. Good morning.

MARTIN: So obviously, Fox was hoping Trump would show up. They made a big push to get him on. He didn't bite. So what's the strategy for the people who do show up - keep talking about him, take advantage of the fact that he isn't there to suck all the air out of the room?

JENNINGS: Well, the strategy, I think, for most of them is to try to supplant Ron DeSantis as the front-runner of the non-Trump candidates. DeSantis has occupied this space since the beginning of the election. There's obviously blood in the water around his candidacy right now. You've seen him come down a bit in national and state polls, and so everybody on that stage would like to replace Ron DeSantis. And for DeSantis, it's a high-risk environment because he could either continue to degrade, or it's a high-reward environment in that he could stabilize his candidacy and reassert his dominance among the non-Trump crowd.

MARTIN: So what advice do you give the other candidates who - how do they talk to voters who - you know, the polls all say Donald Trump still is their first choice. How do they deal with that?

JENNINGS: Well, you know, for some of them, they've been running against Trump - Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, who says he's now qualified. I mean, some of these folks have been sort of running against Trump. Some of them have been running as surrogates of Trump, like Vivek Ramaswamy. So I don't know how you would expect to take the nomination away from him if you're running as a surrogate for him. For DeSantis, his message has been Trump broke his promises to us. We love Trump, but he didn't do all the things he told us he was going to do. I suspect he will continue to do that. But at some point, you have to start to ask yourself whether this is an academic conversation.

When you look at the polling on Trump over the last couple of weeks, a couple of months, really, it's just gone up and up and up as his legal problems have mounted. And it may not matter much what they say. Republican voters are obviously responding to the idea that this election should be a chance for Trump to redeem himself or clear his name more than a chance for Republicans to advance their agenda.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I just want to talk about the RNC for a minute and what position they're in, the Republican National Committee. Mr. Trump - again - talking about him again - has refused to sign a loyalty pledge. And that pledge would say, I'm going to support the nominee no matter what. He's refused to sign this. Does - what - does that mean something for the leadership of the RNC in this process?

JENNINGS: Well, they're having impacts right now because they've helped solidify Donald Trump's position as the front-runner. I mean, who knew that being arrested would bump you up in the polls more than, say, espousing low taxes? It's quite a conundrum for the rest of the candidates who want to run on policies when they're fighting off Donald Trump, who's obviously running on being a victim and a martyr. And nobody's figured out what to do about it yet. And the polls clearly show that Trump's in a dominant position.

MARTIN: Republican strategist Scott Jennings. Thanks so much.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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