On Wednesday night, eight presidential candidates will take the stage in Milwaukee and go head-to-head for the first time in this campaign season. Here’s a look into each presidential hopeful’s debate planning.
According to a memo campaign manager James Uthmeier sent to DeSantis donors and supporters, the Florida governor’s team is “fully prepared” for him “to be the center of attacks.” But it doesn’t seem like he plans on using much of pro-DeSantis Super PAC Never Back Down’s lengthy advice — notably absent in this memo was talk of “taking a sledgehammer” to his rival, Vivek Ramaswamy, or defending Donald Trump against Chris Christie’s likely remarks. Instead, Uthmeier said DeSantis will focus in part on laying “out his vision to beat Joe Biden.”
Ramaswamy’s team says they haven’t done any mock debates, as doing so would pull him off his rigorous campaign schedule. So what is he doing (besides, apparently, playing shirtless tennis for three hours)? According to his campaign, Ramaswamy has spent the past few months engaged in “a lot” of foreign policy briefings, and he spars with his communications director, Tricia McLaughlin, on the private jet between events. On stage, Ramaswamy wants to better introduce himself to the American people and draw policy contrasts. And now that he’s up in the polls he expects to take some heat from other candidates, particularly on some of his foreign policy pronouncements — like calling to cut back aid for Israel and okaying a Chinese invasion of Taiwan if the U.S. builds up its semiconductor industry.
They were denied an in-person showdown with Donald Trump, but Pence’s team doesn’t care. He can lean into topics that other candidates are evasive about: That includes the Trump questions, which Pence has repeatedly answered in front of hostile voters. It means specific policy positions, too: Pence has made specific promises on abortion and budget cuts that other candidates have waffled on or avoided. He’s done prep against stand-ins for DeSantis, Scott, and Ramaswamy, all of whom he could draw policy disagreements with. Almost as important: He is the one candidate with no chance at being on a third Trump presidential ticket, which could liberate him to go further than others.
Heading into the debate, Haley’s team told Semafor that she’s been prepping for this day ever since launching her run back in February: The former South Carolina governor sees her town hall events and unscripted moments on the campaign trail as the best debate preparation possible. Expect Haley to lean into her foreign policy experience on debate night, too, (particularly because it’s an area in which some of her opponents lack experience) and there will likely be a particular focus on sending voters a message about “American strength” and making “America strong.”
Scott’s adeptness on camera is a selling point to big donors and Iowa voters; he frequently tells crowds about debating the hosts of “The View” on race. But Scott’s campaign points out that he’s never been in a nationally televised debate before, and his U.S. Senate races were walkovers. He’s prepared with stand-ins for some rival candidates, and readied for attacks on his support for Ukraine funding, an increasingly divisive topic for the field. He also plans to invoke a recent interview in which former President Barack Obama lumped him in with Republican “minority candidates.” But unlike the rest, he’s got decent momentum already and won’t be swinging for the fences, his campaign says.
He was one of the last candidates to qualify, but Hutchinson’s team said he’s been preparing for the stage since mid-May. That prep didn’t involve staffers playing rival candidates, not just because of the mystery around who’d qualify, but because Hutchinson really needs to introduce himself. One key goal: Defending his record in Arkansas, which Hutchinson’s had to do with conservative media figures who’ve drilled down on his veto of a broad ban on gender medicine for minors. Hutchinson was looking forward to the Trump-free format, telling reporters in Iowa that it would be more “serious” and policy-focused. “You’re not going to have Trump sucking the energy out of the room about four indictments that he’s facing,” he said.
The North Dakota governor doesn’t need to be told how unknown he is. His team views the campaign like a golf game — one hole at a time, first making the debate, then making an impression at it. “Virtually everyone else has got 100% name recognition,” Burgum told Politico’s Playbook podcast last week, explaining how he’d solve the “Doug Who?” problem. He was skeptical of a format he compared to Snapchat, with no opening statements, and possibly few chances to go deep on policy. The campaign just wants Republican voters to meet him, so expect Burgum to talk about North Dakota’s boom economy, his work as a chimney sweep, and other jobs where he “took a shower at the end of the day.”
Publicly, Christie has already mocked that DeSantis Super PAC dump in perhaps a hint at the strategy he’ll take on stage. His campaign told Semafor he’s had sessions (though no mock debates) to discuss his onstage approach. Expect Christie to remain consistent on Wednesday with the messaging he’s had on the trail and in media interviews — that includes his frequent hits on Trump, even though the former president won’t be on the stage. It’s at least helped him carve out a niche, even if he’s viewed unfavorably by most Republicans in surveys: An Echelon Insights poll found him moving into a distant second place behind Trump in New Hampshire, his best showing yet.