By Carl Golden
While the field of participants in the first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee is essentially settled, the run up to the event is overshadowed by who might ditch it altogether and turn it into a meaningless gathering.
It is yet another instance of the long shadow cast by former president Donald Trump – the runaway leader in polling – who stands astride the political landscape sucking up the oxygen and blotting out the sun his competition desperately needs to remain viable.
Greater media attention has been directed toward Trump as a potential no-show rather than the other six candidates who appear to have achieved the fund raising and poll support criteria to qualify.
Trump – in character – has milked the speculation for all it's worth, hinting he is inclined to skip the event rather than attract an audience for competitors who trail him by as much as 30 to 50 points and who will gang up on him on the debate stage.
As conventional wisdom strategy, it makes sense, unlikely to undermine his base of support while portraying the debate as a group discussion of also-rans.
There is, though, the matter of Trump's massive ego, a personal trait so dominant it could convince him to take the stage and prove he can overcome a deck stacked against him.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – Trump's erstwhile best buddy turned most severe antagonist – is of that view, seeing a debate format as his opportunity to separate from the rest of the field by laying into the former president on policy, issue and personal grounds.
The former New Jersey governor has spent every working day since his June 4 candidacy announcement ratcheting up his attacks on Trump, often in highly personal terms while justifying his rhetoric as the only behavior the ex-president understands.
Christie is the more accomplished and polished debater – glib, rhetorically nimble and with a matching ego. He and Trump both possess hair trigger tempers and flamethrower vocabularies which – when stoked – place the debate in peril of devolving into a cacophony of shouts, interruptions and talk overs while the remainder of the field are turned into a chorus of supporting bystanders. Their already steep hill to climb will be made even steeper.
To be sure, watching Trump and Christie go nose to nose is more compelling than an exchange between former vice president Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott over the most effective method to address climate change.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump's closest competitor at 30 points behind but the only other candidate with double digit polling support, will likely attempt to join in pummeling Trump, but his will merely be another voice playing second fiddle behind Christie.
Executives at Fox News Channel, the debate hosts, surely must send up a prayer each morning that Trump will participate, understanding that his absence will seriously diminish interest and whatever credit the network receives for hosting the first debate of the 2024 campaign season will slip quietly into irrelevancy.
If his lead holds up and he loses no significant ground, Trump's presence at future debates is very much in question; a simple matter of nothing to lose and much to gain by sitting them out.
A mercifully anonymous reporter long ago explained political debates this way: "People watch them the way they watch the Indy 500; not to see who wins but who crashes and burns coming out of the fourth turn."
If Trump shows up, the debate moderator might want to replace his welcoming remarks to "Gentlemen, start your engines."
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in New Jersey. You can reach him at [email protected].