GOP candidates prepare for the possibility Trump shows up at the debate after all


“[If] he’s not on that stage, then he’s taking the chance that everybody’s going to talk about his record and talk about why he’s not on that stage,” Haley said Saturday in an interview at the Iowa State Fair. “I’ve never known him to be scared of anything. We’ll see if he’s scared to get on a debate stage, but I would expect him to get up there.”

A Republican operative aligned with a rival candidate said everyone who will be onstage has to prepare for Trump.

“Whether or not he is there, his presence will still be largely looming over this entire debate. You are going to have to prepare like he’s in the room,” said the operative, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “And even if he isn’t, you’re going to have to prepare for the shadow that he casts over because he’s not in the room. And that’s what everybody’s going to want to talk about.”

Prayers, preparation and unpredictability 

Former Vice President Mike Pence opened a mock debate session Wednesday at his campaign headquarters in Carmel, Indiana, by praying with advisers Chip Saltsman, Steve DeMaura, Greg Jacob, Marc Short and Devin O’Malley. Jacob moderated, with Saltsman playing DeSantis, Short taking on the role of Haley, DeMaura standing in as businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and O’Malley acting as Christie.

But Trump’s unpredictability means recasting the campaign’s debate lineup in future run-throughs.  

“We’ll have Trump in it next week,” a Pence aide said of the next scheduled practice debate.

Trump’s absence could make Pence a target for any attacks on Trump-Pence administration policies. Part of the challenge for Pence will be how to best project his message — that he’s both the most traditionally conservative candidate in the race and the grown-up in the room — while fighting for air time on a crowded stage, the aide said.

If Trump is there, sucking up oxygen, it could be more difficult for Pence to be heard without getting into a food fight that undermines the adult-in-the-room vibe he wants to adopt.

Ramaswamy, meanwhile, has been engaged in a light debate about the debate with his own team as he tries to strike a balance between being ready for the live slugfest and maintaining his hallmark spontaneity. 

Ramaswamy, who wants to avoid sounding rehearsed, has been practicing informally with adviser Tricia McLaughlin on flights but plans to add two more formal mock debate sessions to his schedule, he said in an interview. Like Pence, he is prepping for both Trump’s presence and his absence.

“Maybe we’ll do one with him and one without,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy declined to say whether there might be a target on DeSantis’ back. But he hinted it’s not his plan to go after him. 

“I’m not commenting on anyone specifically,” Ramaswamy said, “but generally if somebody is defeating themselves, you let them do that on their own.”

He also said he is starting to think he will become a focus of other candidates trying to tear him down and give themselves a leg up because of a spate of negative stories about him popping up in the media, which he attributes to opposition research by other campaigns.

“There’s a good chance I will” be a target, he said. “We have experienced … a Niagara Falls-level ton of bricks falling on [us].”

DeSantis likely to be a main target

But when it comes to attacks, aides and operatives in most campaigns agree the bulk of the fire is likely to be trained on DeSantis — whether Trump is there or not. And if he is, Trump, a chief critic of DeSantis, is likely to lead the way.  

DeSantis is preparing for attacks and has brought on a top Republican debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, who has worked with at least two GOP presidential nominees: Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, and the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He is running through question-and-answer sessions at least once a week and has said he’s preparing with and without Trump present. 

Sources close to the DeSantis campaign say much of the strategy on the stage is to keep his message focused on President Joe Biden and to argue that he is the only candidate who can beat the president. DeSantis is also looking to bolster his campaign’s contention that it is a two-person race with Trump.  

DeSantis has a history of being a policy wonk in preparing for debates. At prep sessions at the Capitol Hill Club during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis would often wave off his team of advisers on specific policy issues, telling them he understood the nuances and just needed help polishing his answers, according to two people who helped brief him that year. 

“We did our debate prep at the Capitol Hill Club. After, like, the third one, he said, ‘I got all the policy; I just need to work on how to frame it,’” one of the advisers said. 

Vinny Minchillo, a longtime Republican ad maker who has worked on five presidential campaigns, said setting specific goals for the first event should be top of mind for anyone on the debate stage. 

DeSantis’ campaign has cut ads focused on his wife, Casey, and his family, but Minchillo said keeping that sort of imagery on a debate stage is a much different animal.

“You have to be who you are. You can’t be the Manchurian candidate,” he said. “If you are a wonky kind of guy, it’s best to be a wonky sort of person.”

Minchillo, whose most recent presidential campaign was Romney’s, said it’s important for someone like DeSantis to come off as personable. 

“If I am Ron DeSantis’ team,” he said, “my goal is to just make him look like a carbon-based life form.”

The stakes are also high for North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a largely unknown candidate whose early strategy rested heavily on qualifying for the first debate and using it to introduce himself to GOP primary voters. Burgum met the RNC’s unique donor threshold by offering $20 gift cards to those who contributed $1 to his campaign.

“He’s preparing for the debate not with debate coaches telling him what to say and how to say it, but by talking with voters and the media about the biggest issues that impact the largest numbers of Americans,” Burgum spokesperson Lance Trover said. 

Even if Trump does stay away from the debate stage, candidates may still have to contend with him: He has indicated that if he skips the event, he might do some counterprogramming of his own.

POST AUTHOR: Natasha Korecki and Jonathan Allen and Allan Smith and Matt Dixon and Ali Vitali and Henry J. Gomez

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