With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first Republican presidential primary debate of 2024, eight of his Republican rivals will compete to become the party's top alternative for the former president in their first onstage showdown Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
The two-hour debate begins at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It is hosted by the Fox News Channel, with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum as moderators.
CNN will cover the debate on cnn.com, including live updates, analysis and fact checks.
Eight candidates will take the podium: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis; entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy; former Vice President Mike Pence; former Governor of South Carolina and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott; former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
Here are six things to watch during Wednesday night's debate:
Can DeSantis resist the bright lights?
With Trump skipping Wednesday night's debate, DeSantis — who has been second in likely Republican primaries all year under likely Republican primaries all year — may be the biggest target on the stage in Milwaukee.
After all, Trump remains generally popular with Republican voters, meaning an attack on the former president could alienate large swaths of the primary electorate. Instead, in a sort of repeat of the 2016 primary, many Republican candidates seem focused on positioning themselves as the most viable Trump alternative in the field — a status DeSantis now assumes.
After a 19-point reelection win last year, DeSantis entered the GOP race with sky-high expectations. But he has yet to deliver on that promise: he is bogged down in the polls while downsizing and redeploying his campaign staff.
Republican presidential nominee and Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 28.
A strong performance Wednesday night could stabilize Florida governor's ship.
But he's already endured an embarrassing run-up to the debate, when his super-PAC (one with whom he has unusually close ties after outsourcing some functions typically handled by a candidate's own campaign) advised him in a memo Ramaswamy to 'hammer' and defend Trump when the absent former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from that memo.
“That is a separate entity. I had nothing to do with it. It's not something I've read, nor is it a reflection 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 a chance to introduce themselves and talk about their own ideas for the future on the biggest night yet in the 2024 campaign.
At least that's the advice of Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor who shared a debate stage with Trump during the 2016 cycle before withdrawing from the race.
“The only person who will change your mind about Donald Trump is Donald Trump — not any of the candidates,” Walker told CNN, sharing some advice he had given to some of the contenders. “If they waste time attacking him, they are doing just that: they are wasting their time. But when they come out and have a breakthrough moment and have passion, credibility and a bold agenda, people get excited and buzz builds.”
He added: "I'm not saying it will happen, but at least it gives them a fighting chance."
The extent to which the debate – despite his decision to skip Milwaukee – still revolves around Trump is also in the hands of the debate moderators. They have revealed their plans to highlight the contrasts between the Republican candidates, including Trump.
While Walker believes that at least half of Republican voters are eager to turn the page, they have little desire to attack Trump. "It's like attacking a member of your own family," he said.
The role of the Trump critics without Trump
While others may enjoy a debate without Trump, at least three of the eight candidates who took the podium on Wednesday — Pence, Christie and Hutchinson — have made their criticism of the former president central to their campaigns.
Denied the chance to confront Trump directly, their strategies are big question marks.
Pence has carved out his own path as a committed ideological conservative, pressuring his rivals to take clearer stances in support of federal abortion restrictions — a stance that those aware of potential general election backlash might hold back to take that.
Republican presidential nominee and former Vice President Mike Pence campaigns for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, on August 11, 2023.
The former vice president's own actions on Jan. 6, 2021, could also provide fodder for Fox News moderators' questions.
Christie is perhaps the biggest wild card. He will be the only candidate on the podium Wednesday evening who has previously competed in presidential primaries, and has a history of besting his rivals — ask Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
A highlight in South Carolina?
Scott and Haley, the two South Carolina contenders, are both looking for their escape moments.
Scott is a prolific fundraiser with an experienced campaign team. He's had big moments before when he delivered the 2021 Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address. And as the only black Republican in the Senate, he could help the party expand its growing coalition of nonwhite conservatives.
Republican presidential nominee Senator Tim Scott poses for a selfie at the start of the Fourth of July parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire, on July 4.
However, he's also a happy warrior, delivering the kind of optimistic message that can sometimes get lost in debates.
Haley also offers the Republican Party diverse new leadership, but her campaign seems to believe her path to higher polls is through Ramaswamy, who has risen in the ranks in recent weeks.
Speaking about the entrepreneur and political newcomer on Monday, Haley said he is "completely wrong" in calling for a cut in US military aid to Israel.
Ramaswamy, meanwhile, tweeted videos of him practicing and training tennis this week, describing those workouts as preparation for his debate.
Are breakout moments possible at all?
Trump skips the debate, but he doesn't relinquish the spotlight. He participated in a pre-recorded interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which is expected to be released around the time of the debate. The interview will be released on X, formerly known as Twitter, as counterprogramming to the debate, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
On Thursday, the focus will shift back to Trump as he turns himself in at the Fulton County Jail, the fourth such spectacle in recent months.
Trump's campaign also tried to saturate the airwaves with his aides and allies before and after the debate. Fox News, however, informed the Trump campaign on Monday that they will no longer provide credentials for some of the former president's surrogates to attend the spin room at the debate, as the former president will not participate in the debate.
Trump, who will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, could also throw his own verbal grenades from the sidelines. He said on his social media network Truth Social on Tuesday: "I WILL BE VERY BUSY TOMORROW NIGHT - ENJOY!!!"
Without the leader on the podium, it is not clear whether breakaway moments will be possible at all. And when those moments do happen, the cloud Trump casts over the 2024 Republican race raises questions about whether any of his rivals could turn a strong performance into lasting momentum on Wednesday night.
Anyone having an "oops" moment?
While the frontrunners have survived primary debates in the recent presidential election, those vying to become their party's best alternative have actually seen their chances marred by poor debate performance.
In the 2012 Republican race, it was then Texas Governor Rick Perry's "oops" moment when he famously forgot the name of the federal department he wanted to eliminate.
In 2016, Christie halted Rubio's momentum when he mocked his "memorized 25-second speech" about Barack Obama. "There it is, y'all," Christie said when Rubio effectively repeated the same sentence.
During the 2020 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren dashed the hopes of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg within a minute. billionaire for another.”
Some 2024 Republican candidates are already telegraphing potential attacks on rivals in the debate phase. Christie has been beating DeSantis for the past few days. Haley released a statement on Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.
Whether a candidate faces the kind of brutal attacks that have plagued past presidential candidates — and how they respond to those attacks — could change the trajectory of the Republican race.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN's Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.