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It’s ‘All About Trump’—Despite His Absence

Political Rhetoric Expert Explains Why Most GOP Candidates Still Won’t Tackle the Front-runner

By Maryland Today Staff

8 red silhouettes at podiums with one empty podium

Candidates expected to attend Wednesday night's debate include North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. UMD political rhetoric expert Shawn Parry Giles says they're looking to position themselves relative to former President Donald Trump, who has said he won't attend.

Illustration by Shutterstock

Wednesday’s first primary debate between Republicans vying for the 2024 presidential nomination is all about the elephant who plans to spend the evening in an entirely different room.

Former President Donald Trump is skipping the Milwaukee event, instead offering counterprogramming in the form of a taped and presumably friendly interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Trump holds a 23-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Iowa, which essentially leaves the rest of the field scrambling for the scraps and pondering contingencies, said Professor Shawn Parry Giles, a political rhetoric expert who directs the Rosenker Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland and is chair of the Department of Communication.

Watching how the eight candidates position themselves relative to Trump—who few want to tangle with directly—should be fascinating, she said. Some may (emphasis on may) offer new insight into their ideas for governing or how they would defeat incumbent President Joe Biden. And if Trump, who is facing four state and federal indictments for his conduct as president, is forced to drop out of the race, all the delicate maneuvers could take on new import, she told Maryland Today.

“Biden was not the frontrunner at this stage, but he won,” she said. “A lot can happen between now and the election, and while (Trump’s) supporters may not believe in these charges against him, they also care about Republicans taking the White House back.”

How do the other candidates present their vision for what they’d do as president when most of the attention has focused on the fact Trump is going to be a no-show?
They’re going to do their absolute best to stand out, because most of them don’t have the name recognition, with (former Vice President Mike) Pence and DeSantis being the exceptions. Donald Trump is going to be ever-present, even if he’s not on stage. As much as some candidates like Chris Christie are going to try to make it all about Trump, others will try to sidestep that and get out their own biographies and vision as much as they can, trying to break through.

Christie’s brand is attacking Trump, but how do others weigh how much to take him on?
Everyone’s strategy for dealing with Trump will be on full display Wednesday. He’s the heir apparent, and they have no choice but to address him, although any sense of a slight, any criticism he picks up, he’ll blast them over Truth Social. They’re in a pretty no-win situation. DeSantis is in a predicament because some of his pre-debate strategies (suggesting the Florida governor would actively defend Trump) were disclosed. Whether he can follow through on that now will be interesting to see.

What are the pros and cons of Trump’s strategy of instead sitting down with Tucker Carlson?
Of course, he hopes to steer a lot of attention away from the Republican candidates. His strategy makes sense, because he doesn’t have a lot to gain by participating in the debate. He’s way ahead, and he’s not as prepared to talk about specific issues and policies as some of the others. But if he takes a lot of backlash and people are increasingly questioning why he didn’t go, you might see a change in his response to future debates.

If his strongest supporters ignore the debate, does this free up other candidates to stop trying to make nice—and maybe find some success doing so?
They’re still going to be careful. No one is saying Trump is going to bow out, but if he did, they need to be able to be someone his voters could still support. What I’m also starting to see is more murmurs about electability—maybe supporters in Iowa or New Hampshire agreeing he’s the victim of a political vendetta, but worrying whether he can actually defeat Joe Biden. (The candidates) want to remain viable choices for those voters.

Given that they have similar positions on major issues like the economy, abortion and transgender rights and policies at the southern U.S. border, how can they distinguish themselves?
This gets into details, and whether or not this debate even allows for that. But if you take abortion, (former United Nations ambassador) Nikki Haley is the only woman on stage, so she’ll stand out, and she’ll make something of it. She’s also very qualified, given her UN experience and having been a governor, and she’s said she supports a federal ban on abortion, but elsewhere, she’s walked that back a bit. Some of this nuance about positions could come up.

With DeSantis second in line, is he going to be the focus of attack at the debate, since so many candidates don’t want to go directly at Trump?
What’s happening now is often thought of as the metadebate—debate about the debate and the setting expectations game. The DeSantis team just came out and said he’s going to be the target since Trump’s not on stage. So they’re setting expectations that he’s going to be under attack as a means of lowering expectations about how successful he’ll be. Others meanwhile are going to say, I’m not a debater, I’m not polished or articulate—I’m just going to be honest. And the DeSantis information that was put out indicated he’s not going to attack Trump, which is something Christie is likely to go after. I think Christie is going to make some trouble, and that’s going to get a lot of media attention.

How will we judge a winner?
Winning is different for everyone. DeSantis has been dealing with very negative coverage—he’s tone-deaf, doesn’t like talking to people, not a good speaker, can’t thrive on the national stage—so turning that around and presenting himself as more likeable would be a win. (Entrepreneur Vivek) Ramaswamy is trying to get more notice outside these early states to see if he can attract some of those willing to break away from Trump. In a way, the rest of the candidates are vying for third and would consider that a win, unless DeSantis has a really bad night.



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