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The view from the GOP debate venue in Milwaukee

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's a big night for Republicans competing for their party's 2024 presidential nomination. Tonight is their first debate. Former President Donald Trump has decided to skip the event. That certainly takes some of the luster out of the debate, but it may also give the remaining candidates an opportunity to grab some of the spotlight for themselves. NPR's Franco Ordoñez covers Trump and the White House, and he is at the debate venue in Milwaukee. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's the atmosphere like over there?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, there's a lot going on. I mean, buses have been rolling in for hours with the party faithful. I'm actually in the media center, which is filling up. You can probably hear some of the commotion and possibly...

SHAPIRO: Yep.

ORDOÑEZ: ...The Fox News in the background. One of the candidates, actually, Governor Doug Burgum, was here, which is a little news. He had gotten hurt playing basketball, but he was walking around the spin room on crutches. And earlier, I was talking with the Milwaukee County GOP Chairman, Hilario Deleon. He talked a lot about the energy among Republicans.

HILARIO DELEON: I mean, you can feel the excitement out there. I - just walking here before this interview, I just kept running into people I either knew or they knew me from social media. So people are coming from across the nation. All eyes are going to kind of be on Wisconsin.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and he says people are disappointed that Trump won't be here, but he also says it's an opportunity for voters to get to know some of the other candidates.

SHAPIRO: How significant is it that Trump won't be there, and what does that mean for the other candidates?

ORDOÑEZ: It is a big deal, Ari. I mean, he was the clear - he is the clear front-runner in this race by wide margins, and we're talking double digits. And as you said, it takes a lot of the luster away from the group. Thomas Holbrook - he's a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. You know, he says it's an opportunity for Trump's rivals, but there are limits.

THOMAS HOLBROOK: Nobody's going to - in this one debate, nobody's going to make big inroads against Donald Trump. What they can do, though, is make inroads against each other.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Trump is not entirely ceding the spotlight, of course. As we've been reporting, Trump is doing an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and that's going to air at the same time as the debate.

SHAPIRO: There has been so much talk about Trump's indictments. Does his not being there in Milwaukee open the door for the candidates to talk about some other issues?

ORDOÑEZ: I think so. I mean, there's no question that Trump is going to have a presence in the debate. He's leading the field, and the Fox hosts have indicated that there will be some questions about him. I'm sure his indictments will be discussed, but it will also be an opportunity to talk about some of these other issues. I expect we'll hear some discussion about health care, also Ukraine - particularly U.S. funding for the war in Ukraine, which is one of the few issues where there is a clear difference of opinion among the candidates on stage. I also think we'll hear maybe some discussion about abortion and probably, or hopefully, get some clarity on specific restrictions to abortion that the candidates support.

SHAPIRO: You know, the Milwaukee County GOP chairman told you all eyes are going to be on Wisconsin, and that's not only tonight. Milwaukee is also where the Republican National Convention is going to be held. So why so much focus on that city?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's pretty much all about winning the state of Wisconsin. It's one of the few states that are clearly up for grabs. Biden won Wisconsin by less than 25,000 votes three years ago. In 2016, Trump did it by practically the same margin, so Republicans see an opportunity. And I will just note that Democrats have their eye on all that's happening here as well. They're doing a little bit of counterprogramming as well. It's probably no coincidence that Biden was here last week touting his economic tour. They also just released a local ad touting his economic efforts. And there was actually - on my way here, there was a big truck carrying a big Biden billboard kind of parked just outside the RNC hotel as I was driving here. This state is important to both parties.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Franco Ordoñez from Milwaukee. Thanks a lot.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "WHAT THEY DO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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