Republican presidential debate on Fox News

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The Fiserv Forum is prepared for the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Fiserv Forum is prepared for the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Scott Olson/Getty Images

With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate, eight of his GOP rivals will vie to emerge as the party’s top alternative to the former president in their first on-stage showdown Wednesday night in Milwaukee. 

The two-hour debate is set to start at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It is hosted by Fox News Channel, with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum moderating.

CNN will cover the debate at, including live updates, analysis and fact checks.

Eight candidates will be on stage: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott; former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. 

Here are six things to watch in Wednesday night’s debate: 

Can DeSantis withstand the bright lights? With Trump skipping Wednesday night’s debate, DeSantis — who has polled in second place nationally and in early-voting states among likely Republican primary voters all year — might wear the biggest target on the stage in Milwaukee. 

After all, Trump remains broadly popular with Republican voters, which means attacking the former president could alienate broad swaths of the primary electorate. Instead, in something of a replay of the 2016 primary, many GOP contenders appear focused on first positioning themselves as the field’s most viable Trump alternative — a status DeSantis now occupies.

After a 19-point reelection victory last year, DeSantis entered the GOP race to sky-high expectations. But he has not yet lived up to that promise, stalling out in the polls while downsizing and reshuffling his campaign staff. 

A strong performance Wednesday night could steady the Florida governor’s ship. 

But he already endured an embarrassing lead-up to the debate, when his super PAC — one he has unusually close ties to after outsourcing a number of functions typically handled by a candidate’s own campaign — in a memo advised him to “hammer” Ramaswamy and defend Trump if the absent former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from that memo. 

“That’s a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It’s not something that I’ve read, and it’s not, not reflective of my strategy,” DeSantis said Monday.

To Trump or not to Trump? That is the question. The former president’s absence from the stage offers his Republican rivals an opportunity to introduce themselves and talk about their own ideas for the future on the biggest night so far in the 2024 campaign.

At least that’s the advice from Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who shared a debate stage with Trump during the 2016 cycle before bowing out of the race.

“The only person who changes your opinion about Donald Trump is Donald Trump — not any of the candidates,” Walker told CNN, sharing a bit of advice he has given to some of the contenders. “If they waste time attacking him, they’re doing just that, they’re wasting their time. But if they come out and have a breakthrough moment and have passion, credibility and a bold agenda, it gets people worked up and creates a buzz.”

He added: “I’m not saying it will happen, but at least it gives them a fighting chance.”

The degree to which the debate still revolves around Trump — despite his decision to skip Milwaukee — also rests in the hands of the debate moderators. They have signaled their plans to try to highlight contrasts between the Republican candidates, including Trump.

While Walker believes at least half of Republican voters are eager to turn the page, they have little appetite for attacking Trump. “It’s like attacking a member of your own family,” he said. 

Read more about the things to watch for in the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate.

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