donald trump, debates
Donald Trump speaks during the second presidential debate watch party in Public Media Commons in St. Louis, MO, on October 9, 2016. Photo credit: Fred Ortlip / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The GOP is trying to declutter the debate stage via tough eligibility rules — but will the main act even bother to show up?

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With President Joe Biden unlikely to face a serious challenger, the GOP primary debates will be the only show in town this fall. By putting in place tough eligibility rules, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is trying to keep minor actors off the stage. There is only one question: Will the main act bother to show up?

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on Friday announced the various thresholds that candidates have to meet to be allowed to participate in the first debate, which will be held in Milwaukee, WI, on August 23 and is scheduled to be hosted by Fox News.

For lesser-known candidates, the main challenge will be to meet fairly tough fundraising hurdles. To qualify, they have to provide evidence that a minimum of 40,000 unique donors have contributed to their campaign, and they need to have received money from at least 200 unique donors from 20 different states and/or territories.

For candidates who have not already announced their candidacy, that may prove to be difficult, especially if they do not have a lot of name recognition and were hoping to build that with a strong debate performance.

For frontrunner Donald Trump, one specific provision may prove to be a hurdle too high: Any candidate who wants to be on the debate stage has to sign a “pledge agreeing to support the eventual party nominee.”

That does not seem like something Trump would be interested in. Of course, he may sign the pledge and later disregard it if he loses.

Then there is the question of whether the former president will even bother to show up. Earlier this year, he indicated that these debates are beneath him. And he is not wrong that there is not a lot to be gained by a frontrunner who is currently leading the field by 30+ points.

“I see that everybody is talking about the Republican Debates, but nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social website in April. “When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP & MAGA hating anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused?”

If the former president skips the debate, then the event could provide a platform for some of his main challengers.

First and foremost, that means Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who trails Trump by a wide margin but also polls well ahead of everybody else.

Without the former president on the stage, DeSantis would arguably be the main draw. But that also means that he might become the target of the next tier of candidates, such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (SC), and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

For all of them, the strategy is not necessarily to take on Trump at this point, which would likely backfire with the GOP base in any case. Instead, the first step toward securing the nomination is to vanquish the rest of the field and make this a two-person race. In light of the GOP’s revised primary rules, anything else might be an exercise in futility.


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