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Today's Debate Holds Little Significance For Many Republican Voters

Much of the Wednesday evening will be about who will not be on stage: former President Donald Trump, who enjoys a formidable 40-point lead over his rivals.

Fox News is building a frenzy with non-stop promotions of Wednesday's first GOP 2024 presidential debate in Milwaukee. But unlike the 2015 GOP primary debate season that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency, the Milwaukee event will likely be a dud.

Eight candidates will be on stage: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Trump VP Mike Pence, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former two-term South Carolina governor and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota.

Debates are exciting events because they often mark a candidate's political rise or demise. It is anyone's bet who may falter on Wednesday, but Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis are the most at risk. 

In 2011, Rick Perry arrived late to the nominating season with high expectations from his term as a successful Texas governor. But at a debate in Rochester, Michigan, he could not remember the third agency he would get rid of if he won the presidency. "It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone – Commerce, Education and the um, what's the third one there? Let's see. Oh five – Commerce, Education and the um, um," Perry said. 

Mitt Romney prompted him with the name of the EPA. "There you go," Perry said but quickly retracted. “The third agency of government I would do away with - the education, the uh, the commerce, and let’s see. I can't do the third one. I can’t. Sorry Oops!” Fifteen minutes later, Perry, in response to another question, tried to make amends. "By the way, it was the Department of Energy I was talking about.” 

It was too late. Perry never recovered from the lapse. Ironically, Trump appointed Perry to head the Department of Energy, where he was extraordinarily successful. Under Perry's watch, the United States became a net energy exporter in 2018, the first time in over 75 years. 

Much of the Wednesday evening will be about who will not be on stage: former President Donald Trump, who enjoys a formidable 40-point lead over his rivals. Fox has made it clear that Trump will get his due air time by playing his video and audio clips and inviting his opponents to comment.

Trump leads DeSantis 57%-12% in the TIPP Poll conducted in early August

Given his miserable standing in the polls (at only 3.4% in the RCP average for Iowa), Chris Christie has the most to gain from the debate; but he will likely lose the most if he is not careful. An experienced public speaker who brought down Marco Rubio in a 2016 New Hampshire debate, Christie has the experience appearing on national TV for over two years as a guest on ABC's Sunday morning news show, This Week. A close confidant of Trump's and a member of Trump's transition team in 2016, Christie has taken the Liz Cheney route, becoming a strong Trump critic and antagonist. Desperate to seek clicks and pre-debate media attention, Christie tweeted yesterday that Trump was riding out the debate because he was a "coward." GOP voters may disagree about Trump's qualities, but one characteristic that universally defines Trump is that he is anything but a coward. Most other politicians would have wilted facing 700 years in prison and over 91 legal charges.

Christie's Trump problem afflicts Mike Pence even more. We cataloged Pence's difficult position - of being a Trump loyalist and attaining international stature as the second-most powerful elected officer in the United States, only to turn on him during the last few weeks of Trump's presidency - in our editorial two weeks ago. Pence's task is to project a sense of purity, righteousness, and principled-nature goodness that forced him to abandon his boss, without being boring. But with nearly 70% of GOP voters in a CNN poll convinced that the 2020 election was illegitimate, Pence will have difficulty pitching this position. Besides, Pence can't meaningfully claim to have led Trump's policy priorities - and if he exaggerates his role, he will be doing so at his peril. Trump will be watching with his phone, ready to post on Truth Social. 

One should expect everyone to go after rising star Vivek Ramaswamy whom we profiled on these pages in May. He has taken our advice regarding Ukraine, being more forceful in criticizing Washington's thinking about needlessly funding a hopeless war. He has cleverly usurped Columbia Prof. Jeffrey Sachs' view that Washington's support for Ukraine is driving Russia and China to team up, significantly endangering United States interests. Russia has the world's largest nuclear arsenal and some of the world's most advanced weapons systems; China has the world's largest standing defense forces and is angling for a fight about Taiwan.  

It is a brilliant tactic to counter Beltway Neocons in both parties and Christie, Pence, and Haley, who argue that America's support for Ukraine is required for American national security reasons. But for Ramaswamy's sake, we recommend that he credit Prof. Sachs or he could face charges of plagiarism as Biden did in 1987 during his first presidential run. [Biden's speech was found to be remarkably similar to one given by British Leader of the Opposition and Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock.]  

No matter what happens during the debate and in the spin room afterward, the world will be fixated on Trump, who will appear at a Fulton County jail to be arrested on the 24th, just hours after the curtains close in Milwaukee. GOP debates come and go, but a former President of the United States is not often detained and released on bail. 

For Trump, all the cameras will be on him, which is the way he likes it. It is why the GOP debate on Wednesday won't matter very much to most Republicans.

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