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The GOP presidential debate strategies we may see tonight

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First, we want to turn our attention to the first Republican presidential debate, taking place tonight in Milwaukee. Eight candidates will take the stage to make their pitch to Republican primary voters, but most attention is focused on the candidate who will not be there - former President Donald Trump. He has chosen to skip the debate and instead sit down for an interview with former Fox host Tucker Carlson.

So how do you prep for a big televised debate when your biggest opponent decides not to show up? Well, I spoke with Republican communications strategist Alice Stewart and asked her what strategy they should take towards the man not in the room tonight.

ALICE STEWART: My recommendation when we're talking about how to approach this is to punch, pivot and be appealing. You have to punch Donald Trump on the issues that are certainly relevant in this case. You have to go after him on policies that you may have a disagreement on. You may have to go after him on what he did to try and overturn the election. The second-most important aspect these candidates can do is to pivot. As quickly as you can, pivot back to your message, your vision and your strategy for securing the nomination and taking on Joe Biden. And the third-most important thing they can do is to be appealing and, most importantly, be likable. Voters will listen to someone that they like.

KELLY: These candidates are not just having to confront a front-runner who is not there, but a front-runner who's now been indicted in four criminal cases. And yet, that seems to be helping his polling numbers, at least among Republican primary voters. How do you handle that?

STEWART: Well, the most obvious attack of Donald Trump across the board is the fact that he is a loser. He lost reelection. We lost the Senate. We lost key House races as a result of Donald Trump, whether it was his name on the ballot or his endorsement for these candidates. And when you lose across the board like that, you have to use a new playbook.

KELLY: What you're saying sounds reasonable. And yet, we have seen most of the GOP candidates not punching - not going on the attack in any way against Trump.

STEWART: Well, you know, what we're seeing - the most recent issue with Donald Trump is these four indictments and each of them separately. A lot of the candidates are being very cautious to push back too much because there's a large part of Republicans that believe that this is a weaponization of politics. They believe this is a two-tiered justice system. They believe this is overreach by the DOJ. I happen to strongly disagree with that ideology and mindset, but many Republicans believe that. And these candidates understand if they want to appeal to Republican voters, they have to, in some way, embrace that mindset and that thought in order to keep those people interested in the rest of their platform.

KELLY: I mentioned you have worked on presidential campaigns before, including for Republican Senator Ted Cruz. And I want to ask about a moment from another debate. This was also a Fox News debate, but this was back in 2016. It was right before the Iowa caucuses. Trump also skipped this debate. And here is part of how Senator Cruz handled that in his opening statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: Let me say - I'm a maniac, and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat and ugly. And Ben, you're a terrible surgeon.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUZ: Now that we've gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: So a nod there to Trump's well-documented tendency to insult both his opponents and moderators. Can you imagine, Alice Stewart, any of the candidates this year taking a similar approach?

STEWART: Look, I'm glad to hear that comment, and it brings back - I don't know if it's good or frightening memories of the fierce debate prep that we did for each of those debates. But it's good to handle this with humor. And here's the thing, Mary Louise - you cannot go out and flex your muscles before you get to the debate stage and wimp out on the stage. So what they have been saying - going after Donald Trump for avoiding this debate - they have to say that on the stage, or it's going to really come back to haunt them because you have to be consistent. And trust me, I'll put money on the fact that Chris Christie will be one of the first, if not the first person, to throw that punch.

KELLY: And what about Governor DeSantis? What do you - what does he need to do at this debate in Milwaukee?

STEWART: Well, first off, go up there understanding that a lot of arrows will be directed directly at him. And I've spoken with his team, and I know who's doing his debate prep. And they are top-notch, and they're ready for that - to receive incoming.

KELLY: Does he need to attack Trump?

STEWART: On the record of accomplishment and electability, absolutely. Because that is something that he actually has the ability to do so.

KELLY: Big picture - what is the point of a debate where the front-runner does not show? I mean, at a certain level, does this become an exercise in futility?

STEWART: No. We're five months out. So much can happen between now and the Iowa caucus and certainly the New Hampshire primary. Anything can happen. And here's the thing that we often say about specifically Iowa - the purpose of these debates and, ultimately, the Iowa caucus is not to choose the party nominee. It's to winnow the field. And what's going to happen is a lot of these candidates will take this debate as a time to shine. And some of them - it won't be quite as favorable. And what this will do is narrow the field down to a top two or three, and that's what is the best for this primary.

KELLY: That was veteran Republican communications strategist Alice Stewart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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