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Everything to know about the first Republican presidential debate

Trump won’t be in attendance, raising questions about how other candidates will try to seize their moment.

DeSantis speaks in front of a video screen of himself.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 23, 2023, in Washington, DC. 
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

It’s official: Former President Donald Trump has said that he won’t attend the upcoming Republican debate, and possibly others, raising questions about how the remaining candidates will navigate these events in his absence and what they’ll achieve at them.

“New CBS poll, just out, has me leading the field,” Trump wrote in a Truth Social post over the weekend. “I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES.”

As Trump alluded to, he continues to lead the Republican field by large margins. The FiveThirtyEight polling aggregator puts him at 54 percent support, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a distant second at 15 percent, and the next closest challenger, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, at 8 percent. That lead is currently so substantial that it’s tough to see another candidate making up that ground and undercutting his steady and loyal base of support.

The debate, which is slated to take place August 23, is now essentially an opportunity for any of the other candidates — most of whom are polling in the single digits — to have a breakout moment and make the case for why Republican voters should consider them over Trump. For DeSantis, in particular, there’s significant pressure to use this platform to resurrect a floundering campaign, to combat awkward campaign appearances he’s already had and to try to connect with voters who’ve shifted away from him in recent months.

Eight candidates are scheduled to be at the event, which will be a prime opportunity to gin up donations and attention, as well as a chance for candidates to try boosting their poll numbers.

Below is everything we know about the debate so far.

When is the first Republican debate?

The debate will take place on Wednesday, August 23, at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and go from 8 to 10 pm local time, or 9 to 11 pm ET. It will air on Fox News and be livestreamed on Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, two longtime anchors with the network, will moderate.

What are the criteria to make the debate stage?

There are two key hurdles candidates have to clear on donations and polling in order to qualify for the debate stage. First, candidates need to have a total of 40,000 unique donors, including at least 200 unique donors in 20 states or territories. Secondly, they have to hit at least 1 percent support in three national polls or 1 percent support in two national polls and 1 percent support in two early state polls.

Additionally, candidates — who had until August 21 to meet this criteria — have to pledge to support the 2024 party nominee.

Will Trump attend?

Trump has said he will not attend this debate, and potentially future debates as well, citing his dominant polling lead over the rest of the field. Barring major changes, it is difficult to see how any of his rivals could defeat him in the primaries.

Trump has said he will instead do an interview with former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson that will air at the same time.

Who has qualified so far?

Nine Republican candidates have qualified so far based on publicly available data, and self-reported information from multiple campaigns, the New York Times reports. Those who’ve appeared to hit the necessary polling and donation thresholds include:

  • Former President Donald Trump: Polls currently have the former president as the decisive frontrunner, despite the costly and serious criminal investigations he’s under. And even if he won’t be there, his presence will still loom over the entire debate as other candidates go after him or defend him in a bid to win over his supporters.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: DeSantis is widely viewed as Trump’s chief opponent in the primary, though he’s struggled to gain momentum since his campaign launch. For some Republicans, DeSantis — who has touted a discriminatory anti-trans, anti-DEI policy platform — was initially viewed as Trump without the legal baggage. Many voters appear interested in sticking by Trump, however, as DeSantis has gotten blowback for legislative positions on abortion and immigration, and fumbled stump speech appearances.

    The debate is a key chance for DeSantis to try to win over some of the voters who like Trump, but are worried that his many indictments and lawsuits could drag him down in a general election.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence: Pence is perhaps most known for confronting Trump over his 2020 election lies and refusing to help the former president’s efforts to overturn that election on January 6. Since then, he’s sometimes taken a less confrontational tone toward Trump and stressed a commitment to his Evangelical faith in an attempt to connect with more religious voters. Pence has held conservative, hardline positions on issues like abortion and marriage equality, for example. Pence has thus far struggled to gain momentum because of limited backing from both pro-Trump and anti-Trump voters, but the debate could be an opportunity for him to make his case.
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: One of the most vocal Trump critics in the primary, Christie has focused heavily on courting the narrow anti-Trump wing of the party. A more moderate Republican who has criticized Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, Christie has made confrontation with his former ally a central part of his pitch.

    The debate is another platform for him to continue criticizing Trump, and to own this lane further.
  • Sen. Tim Scott: Scott, a three-term senator known for attempting to work on a deal on police reform, has positioned himself as a potential alternative to Trump and DeSantis. He’s criticized Trump at times, but hasn’t taken a strong stance overall, and has instead focused his message on faith and his success as a Black Republican.
  • Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: Haley has tried to frame herself as more moderate relative to the frontrunners, and has also flip-flopped in the past when it comes to attacks on Trump. As a former member of his administration, Haley has emphasized her experience as an ambassador to the UN and her work on foreign policy.

    For both Scott and Haley, the debate is a crucial moment for them to appeal to more voters and try to rise above the single digits they’ve been polling in.
  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum: Burgum has centered his campaign on the economy, including combating inflation, and sought to steer clear of culture war issues. He’s well-liked in the state of North Dakota, but has much less of a national profile compared to some of the other candidates on the stage. The debate offers him a chance to introduce himself to a broader audience.
  • Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy: Ramaswamy, the author of Woke Inc., is one of many Republicans who has made criticizing so-called wokeness in investing a major aspect of his platform. Ramaswamy, who’s made defending Republicans’ free speech rights a chief aspect of his candidacy, has been on a media blitz and has seen some gains in the polls. The debate is a chance for him to turn his longshot candidacy into something more serious.
  • Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson: Hutchinson, like Christie, is another prominent Trump critic who has lambasted his condoning of white supremacists as well as the criminal charges that he now faces. A two-term former governor of Arkansas, Hutchinson has backed conservative positions like an abortion ban with few exceptions, while taking more moderate positions in certain instances including pushing back against a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth.

Who hasn’t qualified so far?

Former Rep. Will Hurd, another prominent Trump critic, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, and businessman Perry Johnson are among those who will not be on the debate stage on Wednesday.

Hurd has also refused to sign a commitment pledging loyalty to the Republican nominee, another qualification criteria. Several of these candidates, who appear to have missed RNC polling criteria, have criticized the decision, with Hurd arguing the organization was “cherry-pick[ing]” which polls to consider.

Who could be Trump’s biggest challenger?

At the moment, Trump doesn’t really have a serious challenger. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average shows the former president only widening his massive lead with time, and minimal gains among the other candidates.

All of the other candidates are likely hoping to turn in debate performances that will change their races. The debate is a major chance for DeSantis in particular to try to establish himself and prove that he’s a more electable alternative to Trump — an argument he’s already begun to make on the campaign trail. It’s not evident how convincing he will be due to Trump’s enduring support in the polls, and due to the hardline, nationally unpopular positions DeSantis has taken on issues like abortion — including signing a six-week ban.

Others poised to mount a vocal challenge to Trump include Christie, who has already repeatedly condemned the former president’s election denials. Christie’s chances are limited in the primary since so many voters remain loyal to Trump, but the debate is a platform for him to continue to hammer this message, and perhaps weaken the former president’s standing slightly.

Why does the debate matter?

A strong debate performance could lead to a bump in the polls, an influx of fundraising, and broader momentum that sets candidates apart from a crowded field. Each of the non-Trump candidates struggling in the former president’s shadow could use a boost.

In 2020, for example, Vice President Kamala Harris saw a temporary polling bump when she had a viral moment confronting President Joe Biden at the first Democratic debate. And in 2016, Trump capitalized on the first presidential debate to solidify the support he had in the polls.

“For many, they see the debate as the best way to generate interest and enthusiasm in their campaigns,” George Washington University politics professor Todd Belt previously told Vox. “This translates into more media coverage, campaign contributions, and volunteers. All of these are necessary to wage a successful presidential nomination campaign — even more so with such a strong frontrunner in the field.”

Update, August 23, 10:35 am ET: This story was originally published on August 2 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include new information about the candidates who qualified for the debate.

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