Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen, PhD, is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion and the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution. He was a candidate for California State Controller in 2022. Chen has played senior roles in both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations and been an adviser to four presidential campaigns, including as policy director of Romney-Ryan 2012. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The first debate between the Republican presidential contenders next Wednesday marks an important milestone in the 2024 campaign: It’s the first time when the candidates will directly engage one another, and the electorate will be able to see them side by side.
The most significant unanswered question going into the debate is whether the current frontrunner in the nominating contest, former President Donald Trump, will opt to participate. Reports suggest he has gone back and forth on whether to attend. Nor has Trump signed the Republican National Committee’s loyalty pledge to support whichever candidate wins the primary, a prerequisite for participation in the debate.
Trump’s decision will be of great consequence to each of his opponents who qualify to participate and who must now prepare for two different scenarios that will impact the strategy and tactics they use.
What approaches should some of the leading Republican candidates employ and, perhaps more importantly, what should each hope to accomplish in the debate?
Former President Donald Trump
If Trump decides to participate in the debate, the former president has a low bar to clear. He is universally known and enters the debate with a commanding lead in polling conducted both nationally and in the early primary states.
His goals are simple: address concerns that his recent legal difficulties and indictments make him unelectable with the broader, general election electorate; lay out his vision for advancing the “MAGA” agenda if elected to four more years in office; and respond to significant attacks from his opponents without giving them an opening to have a breakout moment where they seize on or expose one of his electoral weaknesses.
The last of these may be most challenging for Trump since he is not known for exercising restraint on the debate stage. But the only way Trump loses the debate is if he engages in a direct confrontation with one of his opponents (particularly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis), loses, and that moment goes viral while demonstrating Trump is either beatable or weak.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
DeSantis has two interrelated goals in the debate: The first is to reinforce his place as the best alternative to Trump in the Republican nominating contest, and the second is to demonstrate that he is better equipped than Trump to defeat President Joe Biden in the general election next November.
There are a few different pathways to success for DeSantis, but his task boils down to convincing voters that he can advance conservative policy priorities without the baggage and legal difficulties that would plague Trump in a general election. Next week’s debate also gives DeSantis an opportunity to remind primary voters of the conservative governing successes he has had in Florida over the last several years, and to emphasize the ways in which that approach will translate to national office.
DeSantis should also mix in elements of the policy proposals he’s put forward on the presidential campaign trail, such as his recent 10-point “Declaration of Economic Independence,” which includes promises to increase economic growth through tax cuts and regulatory reform as well as expanding domestic energy exploration. While the media has covered these proposals, many in the electorate may still be unfamiliar with them.
Given his positioning in the polls, as well as the significant financial resources his campaign and outside super PAC still have on-hand, DeSantis won’t benefit from directly engaging or sparring with any of his opponents — except for Trump. If Trump decides to debate, DeSantis should draw sharper contrasts with the former president than he has on the campaign trail thus far, with the goal of winning over some of Trump’s “softer” supporters.
US Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina
Tim Scott finds himself in a relatively good position going into the first debate. Several recent polls show him in third place in Iowa, and a University of New Hampshire poll last month had him in third place there.
But national polling shows him further behind, likely because Republican primary voters outside of those early states may not yet be familiar with him. Next week’s debate, then, is Scott’s opportunity to introduce himself more broadly — to tell voters about who he is, why he’s running and how he would be different from his primary opponents.
Axios recently referred to Scott as the “optimistic Republican,” a definitive contrast with some others (namely Trump) seeking the nomination. Scott has the financial resources to be in the nominating contest for the long run (his cash on hand position lags only that of Trump’s campaign), so he should consider this debate but the first in a series of opportunities to communicate with voters about his background and policy plans should he win the White House.
Scott has, so far, escaped the ire of Trump. Thus, his debate strategy is less dependent on whether Trump shows up. Instead, he has been attacked by the other contenders, including, most recently, DeSantis, and Scott should be prepared to be a target of nearly all the other candidates who are looking to gain traction in the early states.
In the debate, Scott must remain true to the optimistic persona he has built on the campaign trail thus far and rise above the attacks, which will only increase if he continues to demonstrate strength in public polls.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence
Nikki Haley and Mike Pence are both accomplished politicians who would, in an ordinary campaign cycle, be two of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination. But this year, both are struggling to break out, particularly in polls taken of primary voters in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
In many ways, Haley and Pence have similar goals in the debate: to stand out and draw sharp contrasts with the candidates in front of them in the polls — Scott and DeSantis, in particular. They must also determine how directly they want to attack Trump, should he show up — a decision complicated by the fact that both played prominent roles in his administration. It’s important for both Pence and Haley to be able to answer the question of why they would be better equipped than Trump to build on the policy gains made while he was in office.
During the 2016 presidential race, the last time the Republicans had a competitive field, the first debate drew about 24 million viewers — making it the highest-rated non-sports cable broadcast ever. Next week’s debate, therefore, will play an important role in winnowing the field in what has already been a nasty GOP presidential nominating contest.