Former President Trump is so far out ahead of the rest of the Republican presidential primary field that some in the GOP see Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee as little more than a showcase for candidates angling to be Trump’s running mate.
Trump’s standing in the polls and fundraising have only been bolstered by each indictment announced by federal and state prosecutors, leading political experts to declare that it would take a seismic political event to shake up the race.
Trump’s apparent lock on the nomination and his decision to skip the debate, depriving his rivals of a chance to challenge him directly, raises questions about what the other candidates really hope to accomplish Wednesday.
For Trump’s top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the debate will be an opportunity to show he is a viable challenger and boost his sagging poll numbers. But for other candidates, it will be an audition for serving as Trump’s vice president or in his Cabinet, GOP strategists say.
“Trump definitely has the race locked up because of the strength of his support. Look, he’s got approaching 60 percent in some national polls and he has a very loyal following. He essentially has it wrapped up,” said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“This is essentially a vice presidential or cabinet debate, people auditioning to get some kind of traction so they become acceptable on a ticket as a number two,” he said.
“Really you have about two or three candidates who are in the running for VP in that group. Principal among them is [Sen.] Tim Scott [R-S.C.] because a lot of people like him as their second choice,” he added.
Ullyot said the debate provides a chance for “lesser-known candidates” such as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum or entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy to “audition” by raising their profile in order to “run for either a cabinet position or a VP position.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked for the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign and as a Trump White House and campaign surrogate, said “the first Republican debate could well be the VP audition.”
He said Trump “wants to see who can be an attack dog, who can be a good surrogate.”
Trump himself pushed this idea earlier this month when he posted on his social media platform, Truth Social: “Let them debate so I can see who I MIGHT consider for Vice President.”
Trump’s super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., also pushed that narrative this week by setting up a website soliciting supporters to “vote for your favorite VP” by clicking on one of the eight candidates who will appear on stage in Milwaukee.
Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, also said Trump appears to be cruising to the nomination.
“I can’t imagine what event or series of events could occur that would shake this, certainly not a dozen other Republicans ragging on him in the debate. You kind of wonder what event would intervene, what kind of tectonic shift would be required,” he said.
But former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who hails from a key early primary state, disputed Trump’s attempt to claim he will inevitably win the nomination.
“He doesn’t have the nomination locked up. That’s why he would say something like that to make people feel that he does. That’s self-promotion and gamesmanship,” he said. “If the same person finishes first or second in Iowa and New Hampshire, this becomes a two-person race no matter how many other people in it.
“It’s way too early to know who that other person is. Nobody’s caught the wave yet but somebody’s going to and when they do, Trump’s going to have a race on his hands,” Gregg said.
Even so, Gregg acknowledged it’s “not unusual” for the eventual nominee to pick a rival as his running mate, noting Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H.W. Bush in the 1980 presidential campaign to serve as his vice president.
One Republican strategist aligned with Trump who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the campaign said Scott, Ramaswamy and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) are enticing presidential running mates because Trump needs to expand his appeal among minority and women voters in the general election, if he indeed wins the nomination.
“It’s basically the vice presidential debate right now,” the strategist said. “You need to lay down a good positive issue agenda that is going to get people to start talking about you. The attacks against Trump have backfired on the other candidates.”
The strategist said former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Trump’s administration, is not likely to be on any vice presidential short list because she has attacked Trump during the campaign.
She has also broken with Trump on foreign policy by criticizing him for being too friendly to China and for not taking a stronger stand in support of Ukraine’s war against Russia.
Noem, who isn’t running for president, declared earlier this month in a Fox News interview that none of the other candidates could win the nomination as long as Trump is in the race.
She has tried to raise her national profile in recent weeks by launching ads for a nationwide workforce recruitment program to lure more workers to her own state. She has emphasized that “South Dakota stayed open for business during the pandemic,” a line likely to appeal to many GOP voters.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former Senate and House leadership aide, said the debate “is a game of survivor for these candidates.”
“Having a fantastic performance breathes more fundraising dollars into your campaign from small-dollar donors who suddenly see you’re likely to remain in the race and could be an outstanding replacement to President Trump should he not become the nominee,” he said.
“Tim Scott is really the optimist among the whole slate of candidates. He’s running a real optimistic campaign and one that looks to the future and I think that’s something that Trump would absolutely need because he’s constantly looking backwards and somewhat running a grievance campaign,” he said.
Bonjean said “Ramaswamy has enthusiasm, energy and a relentlessness to him” and is “really running an outsider’s campaign that Trump could take a liking to.”
“I think both of those candidates have outstanding opportunities to shine in this debate,” he said. “If they’re going to be really considered for a vice presidential role, then they have to show a lot of energy and frankly showcase … how they would turn the country around.”
John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former House GOP leadership aide who plans to attend the debate in Milwaukee, however, said it’s too early to say that Trump has locked up the nomination, despite his huge lead in the polls.
“This debate will clarify who the top competitor to Trump is,” he said. “We still have to go through a couple steps here. Trump is not as strong as people think. All the money he’s raising is going for his defense against all these prosecutions.
“This is a critically important debate to decide who the chief alternative to Trump would be. And that might eventually turn out to be the vice president, given that that’s how it works,” he said. “I don’t think that Trump is going to pick somebody from the stage unless it’s Nikki Haley. I think he’s looking for a woman.”