With Trump absent, all eyes on DeSantis at GOP primary debate

Here’s how the Florida governor may approach Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee — and how other candidates might take him on.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering, a convention of Republican speakers organized by commentator Erick Erickson, on Friday in Atlanta. DeSantis was among several candidates for the Republican nomination for president who spoke at The Gathering, and who will take the stage for Wednesday's primary debate in Wisconsin.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering, a convention of Republican speakers organized by commentator Erick Erickson, on Friday in Atlanta. DeSantis was among several candidates for the Republican nomination for president who spoke at The Gathering, and who will take the stage for Wednesday's primary debate in Wisconsin. [ BEN GRAY | AP ]
Published Aug. 22|Updated Aug. 22

For Gov. Ron DeSantis and his struggling presidential campaign, Wednesday’s Republican primary debate isn’t quite a make-or-break moment.

He won’t be squaring off with the front-runner, former President Donald Trump, who’s sitting it out. And he still has a solid grasp on second place, even if other candidates have tightened the gap in early primary states.

But the debate still brings pitfalls he can’t look past. Other candidates will take shots at DeSantis as they seek to gain traction. He’ll try to come across as authentic and relatable, something his campaign has struggled with thus far. And more than any other candidate, all eyes will be on him.

Here’s what to watch for in Wednesday’s debate, airing at 9 p.m. on Fox News.

Who’s in?

To qualify, candidates had to secure donations from at least 40,000 individuals, including at least 200 in 20 states, and poll at a minimum of 1% in a combination of national and/or state polls.

Those who made the cut: DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Who’s out?

Trump, first and foremost. As the former president wrote on his Truth Social media platform: “The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had. … I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!” Instead, he’ll appear in a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson that will stream at the same time.

At an event Friday in Atlanta, DeSantis said he thought all qualified candidates should take the stage.

“If you qualify, I think you owe it to the public to put out your vision, to talk about your record, answer questions about your record and decisions that you may have made or not made,” he said. “And if you’re not willing to do that, then I think that people are not going to look kindly on that.”

Other candidates who failed to meet the Republican Party’s threshold for participation include Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, radio host Larry Elder and entrepreneur Perry Johnson.

What is DeSantis’ strategy?

According to Politico, DeSantis has spent weeks preparing with the help of renowned debate coach Brett O’Donnell, who’s worked on presidential campaigns for Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush. He coached Sen. Rick Scott in a 2014 gubernatorial debate against Charlie Crist.

Politico described O’Donnell as a master at crafting memorable lines designed to garner headlines the next day. That tactic was emphasized in debate strategy memos crafted by DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, and outlined last week by The New York Times. Other bullet points: Attack President Joe Biden, defend Trump against attacks from Christie, and “take a sledgehammer” to surging rival Ramaswamy, calling him “Vivek the fake” or “Fake Vivek.”

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The memos also encourage DeSantis to highlight his positive aspects through anecdotes about his family, and by saying he, and not Trump, is the best candidate to “focus on moving the country forward.”

For his part, DeSantis told Fox News the memo was “not mine; I haven’t read it.” And in a memo to donors obtained by Axios, campaign manager James Uthmeier said DeSantis will focus most of his attack energy on Biden.

“We are fully prepared for Governor DeSantis to be the center of attacks and on the receiving end of false, desperate charges from other candidates and the legacy media,” the memo read.

Is DeSantis a good debater?

Reviews from his two gubernatorial campaigns generally have not been stellar.

In a 2018 debate with Andrew Gillum, The New York Times said DeSantis “seemed rattled over questions about his associations with far-right groups,” at one point “raising his voice and slamming the lectern.”

Four years later, DeSantis provided a memorable debate moment when Crist asked if he would pledge to serve a full second term as governor, rather than running for president. DeSantis did not directly answer, standing in silence for several seconds before asking the moderator: “Is it my time?” (The two candidates had agreed beforehand not to ask each other questions.)

That said, DeSantis, a former attorney, does not seem to mind the debate stage. Earlier this month, he challenged Vice President Kamala Harris to a debate over race in Florida’s education standards. He also indicated he would accept California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s offer to debate, telling Sean Hannity: “I’m game. Let’s get it done. Just tell me when and where.” So far, the sides have yet to schedule anything.

Where is DeSantis vulnerable?

Other candidates may point to Florida’s ongoing insurance crisis, affordability issues and high inflation rates. Some have already outlined other areas where he’s open to criticism.

While no candidate is likely to slam Florida’s six-week abortion ban, Pence has said he plans to call out DeSantis for not endorsing a national abortion ban.

Tim Scott criticized Florida education materials touting how some slaves developed a “personal benefit” in slavery, saying DeSantis should “clarify” his position.

“It was just devastating,” Scott said of slavery. “I would hope that every person in our country, and certainly running for president, would appreciate that.”

DeSantis only recently started refuting Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, pushback that might not be enough for Christie and Hutchinson. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Hutchinson called DeSantis “weak” when it came to Trump’s claims.

What have other candidates said about DeSantis leading up to the debate?

In response to Never Back Down’s debate prep memos, Ramaswamy called DeSantis “Super PAC-creation ‘Robot Ron.’”

Christie, a fierce Trump critic, told a crowd in Miami that the governor should “do our party a favor, come back to Tallahassee and endorse Donald Trump.”

“This campaign of his has gone from up here to down here, because people are really beginning to wonder what the hell he stands for,” Christie said.

• • •

Test your knowledge: How well do you know Ron DeSantis? A quiz.

Catch up on coverage: Read these 11 essential Ron DeSantis stories from his hometown paper

Video: Three moments that made Ron DeSantis a national figure

The first lady: Casey DeSantis: The ‘X-factor’ in Florida governor’s inner circle