5 things to watch in first Republican presidential debate

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Donald Trump’s rivals in the Republican White House race are due to convene for the first debate of the campaign Wednesday, as they jostle for position behind the front-running former president.

Trump has said he will skip the Fox News showdown, joining Tucker Carlson for an interview in the same time slot and letting his commanding national lead do the rest of his talking.

Still, the debate in Milwaukee should allow a small army of long-shot contenders to sell their campaigns, with the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus more than four months away.

Here are five things to watch.

1. Will Trump show?

The wise-cracking, bomb-throwing Trump made a mark on the first GOP debate in 2015, attacking Rosie O’Donnell when a moderator, Megyn Kelly, asked him about his history of sexist comments.

This time around, it seems Trump will sit the debate out — a standard choice for a politician with a large polling lead. On Tuesday, a FiveThirty Eight average of primary polls put Trump up 38 percentage points over his closest competitor, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

“The public knows who I am,” Trump said on his Truth Social platform Sunday.

But an air of suspense still hangs. Mike Pence, Trump’s one-time vice president and now a rival, has suggested he would not be surprised if the 45th president decides to show up at the last minute.

“I served alongside the president for a long time, and one thing I realized about him is it’s not over till it’s over,” Pence said in an ABC News interview that aired Sunday.

2. How will the pack handle Trump?

Trump’s post-presidency — marked by a myriad of election lies, an assortment of endorsements of failed candidates and four criminal indictments — seems to provide plenty of fodder for rivals.

But some candidates have seemed to pull punches, a tacit acknowledgement of the stranglehold Trump has over the GOP electorate. Candidates like DeSantis have often seemed uncomfortable taking shots at Trump, fearing a backlash.

With Trump rising in the polls, though, more hopefuls may rip the band-aid. Earlier this month, DeSantis declared Trump did not win the 2020 presidential election.

“I would expect Trump’s name to be mentioned hundreds of times,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “If it’s not, the candidates are basically ceding the nomination to Trump.”

3. Can Christie make a splash?

One candidate who seems unafraid to take on Trump is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was criticized as a domineering force when he led New Jersey, but whose debate skills are hard to question.

On a GOP presidential debate stage in 2016, Christie filleted a flustered Sen. Marco Rubio, functionally ending the Florida senator’s run in some people’s eyes.

Christie plainly craves a chance to carve up Trump, whom he once advised and supported. But if the former president does not attend the tilt Wednesday, Christie may be left to train his fire elsewhere.

“Christie’s very good at the multi-candidate debates,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “He’s like a bumper car. He’ll be bumping into anybody he can.”

Christie is scoring about 3% of the vote nationally, according to FiveThirtyEight.

4. How much heat will DeSantis take?

DeSantis, long seen as the primary GOP threat to Trump, has been struggling throughout the summer and recently replaced his campaign manager. Opponents may smell blood.

A campaign memo circulated by his campaign said, “we are fully prepared for Gov. DeSantis to be the center of attacks.”

A strong DeSantis performance could clarify his alternative-to-Trump status. A weak showing could open the field.

“This is as close to a do-or-die moment as a candidate can have,” Conant said of DeSantis.

5. Will candidates focus on immigration?

President Biden’s handling of America’s southwestern border has been a point of sharp Republican criticism over the last year, as waves of migrants have headed northward — stretching resources in places like New York City.

But Republican strategists suggested the debate is likely to offer more mudslinging than substantive policy debate from the candidates.

“I haven’t seen any really robust policy discussions from any of them,” said Jay Townsend, a New York political consultant who advises candidates from both parties.

The debate starts at 9 p.m. EST on the Fox News Channel.