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'Punch, pivot and be appealing': Expert's guide for candidates in Trump-less debate

A very notable figure is missing from the Republican primary debate lineup.
AFP contributor
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AFP via Getty Images
A very notable figure is missing from the Republican primary debate lineup.

How do you prepare for a nationally televised debate when your biggest opponent decides not to show up?

That has been the question facing the eight Republicans who will be onstage in Milwaukee on Wednesday night for the first GOP debate of the 2024 presidential election season.

On Monday, the Republican National Committee confirmed who will participate in the debate, with one very notable absentee: former President Donald Trump.

Veteran Republican communications strategist Alice Stewart spoke to All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly about how the candidates should approach the debate, especially without the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: As someone who has coached Republican presidential candidates in the past, put your debate coach cap on. What's the best advice here? Ignore Donald Trump — he's not there? Joust in absentia? What would you advise?

Alice Stewart: It's virtually impossible to completely ignore Donald Trump because the questions will come up surrounding him, and the other candidates will make references to him.

So my recommendation when we're talking about how to approach this is to punch, pivot and be appealing.

You have to punch Donald Trump on the issues that are certainly relevant in this case. You have to go after him on the policies that you may have a disagreement on. You may have to go after him on what he did to try and overturn the election — which, by the way, was free and fair and certainly without widespread voter fraud — and push back on him without alienating his voters.

The second most important aspect these candidates can do is to pivot as quickly as you can back to your message, your vision and your strategy for securing the nomination and taking on Joe Biden.

A lot of these candidates are not well known across the country, and I know they are taking this debate as an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters across the country and make sure they're aware of their background, their record and their resolve to lead this country.

And the third most important thing they can do is to be appealing and, most importantly, be likable. Voters will listen to someone that they like.

Kelly: These candidates are not just having to confront a front-runner who is not there but a front-runner who's now been indicted in four criminal cases. And yet that seems to be helping his polling numbers, at least among Republican primary voters. How do you handle that?

Stewart: Well, the most obvious attack of Donald Trump across the board is the fact that he is a loser. He lost reelection. We lost the Senate. We lost key House races as a result of Donald Trump, whether it is his name on the ballot or his endorsement for these candidates. And when you lose across the board like that, you have to use a new playbook.

And that is, in my view and in many Republicans' minds, the easiest and most obvious attack against former President Trump, is to show that his strategy and his formula is not a winning formula for a general election electorate.

Look, there is no disputing the fact he has broad-based support in the Republican Party, and that is fantastic. There's no taking away the successes he had in the White House with regard to the economy, as well as safety and security.

Kelly: I just want to stick with this idea of punching, because what you're saying sounds reasonable. And yet we have seen most of the GOP candidates not punching, not going on the attack in any way towards Trump.

Stewart: You know what we're seeing — the most recent issue with Donald Trump is these four indictments — is a lot of the candidates are being very cautious to push back too much because there's a large part of Republicans that believe that this is a weaponization of politics. They believe this is a two-tiered justice system. They believe this is an overreach by the DOJ.

I happen to strongly disagree with that ideology and mindset. But many Republicans believe that, and these candidates understand if they want to appeal to Republican voters, they have to, in some way, embrace that mindset and that thought in order to keep those people interested.

Kelly: And I want to ask about a moment from another debate. This was also a Fox News debate, but this is back in 2016:

So, a nod there to Trump's well-documented tendency to insult both his opponents and moderators. Can you imagine any of the candidates this year taking a similar approach?

Stewart: It's good to handle this with humor. But I do think a lot of these candidates, as we've seen over the last few days, they don't find anything funny about the fact that the former president is thumbing his nose at not just them but Republican voters and also the Republican National Committee that sent out the invitation and asked all the candidates to sign a loyalty pledge to support the nominee and their efforts to beat Biden.

And what we've already seen the last several days is them pushing back on the former president for not showing up. And here's the thing: You cannot go out and flex your muscles before you get to the debate stage and wimp out on the stage.

So what they've been saying, going after Donald Trump for avoiding this debate, they have to say that on the stage or it's going to really come back to haunt them because you have to be consistent. And trust me, I'll put money on the fact that Chris Christie will be one of the first, if not the first person, to throw that punch.

Kelly: What is the point of a debate where the front-runner doesn't show up? I mean, at a certain level, does this become an exercise in futility?

Stewart: No. So much can happen between now and the Iowa caucus. And, certainly, the New Hampshire primary — anything can happen.

And here's the thing that we often say about specifically Iowa: The purpose of these debates, and ultimately the Iowa caucus, is not to choose the party nominee — it's to winnow the field. And what's going to happen is a lot of these candidates will take this debate as a time to shine. And some of them, it won't be quite as favorable. And what this will do is narrow the field down to a top two or three. And that's what is the best for this primary.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]