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Who’s in, who’s out, who’s boycotting: The 8 candidates expected on-stage for the first GOP debate

By MEG KINNARD, Associated Press
Published: August 23, 2023, 12:10pm

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Donald Trump won’t be on the Republican debate stage Wednesday. But the former president is driving the conversation on and off the debate stage anyway.

Trump supporters including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene will be in Milwaukee. There are questions about how many of his campaign surrogates will be allowed into Fox News’ spin room. The network has restricted their access unless they are the guests of another media organization.

Eight other candidates met the donor and polling qualifications to be onstage, according to the Republican National Committee. For those who didn’t, missing the debate could be a decisive moment in their campaigns.

Conservative radio host Larry Elder has said he plans to sue the RNC over being left out, despite what he says is proof that he qualified for the debate. It also wasn’t immediately clear what Miami Mayor Francis Suarez — who didn’t make the cut — would do, following his Iowa State Fair comments that he might drop out of the race if that happened.

To qualify for the Aug. 23 debate, candidates needed to satisfy polling and donor requirements set by the RNC: at least 1% in three national polls or a mix of national and early-state polls deemed acceptable by the committee, between July 1 and Aug. 21, and a minimum of 40,000 donors, with 200 in 20 or more states.

Candidates also needed to commit at least 48 hours before the Wednesday evening debate, according to RNC criteria, which also required participants to sign a pledge promising to support the party’s eventual nominee.

A look at who’s in, who’s out and who’s decided not to participate:

WHO’S IN

RON DESANTIS

The Florida governor has long been seen as Trump’s top rival, finishing a distant second to him in polls in early-voting states and in national polls as well, and raising an impressive amount of money.

But DeSantis’ campaign has struggled in recent weeks to live up to high expectations. He let go of more than one-third of his staff as federal filings showed his campaign was burning through cash at an unsustainable rate.

With Trump absent, DeSantis may be the primary target for others onstage. According to people familiar with DeSantis’ planning who were granted anonymity to discuss strategy, the campaign is preparing him for nonstop attacks.

DeSantis has been participating in debate-related question and answer sessions at least once a week, having brought in experienced debate strategist Brett O’Donnell to assist.

TIM SCOTT

The South Carolina senator has been looking for a breakout moment. The first debate could be his chance.

A prolific fundraiser, Scott entered the summer with $21 million cash on hand.

In one debate-approved poll in Iowa, Scott joined Trump and DeSantis in reaching double digits. The senator has focused much of his campaign resources on the leadoff GOP voting state, which has a large number of white evangelical voters.

Scott is hitting the early-state campaign trail after the debate, traveling to New Hampshire, Iowa and his home state of South Carolina, where he has four stops planned on Monday.

NIKKI HALEY

She has blitzed early-voting states with campaign events, walking crowds through her successes ousting a longtime South Carolina lawmaker, then becoming the state’s first female and first minority governor. Also serving as Trump’s U.N. ambassador for about two years, Haley frequently cites her international experience, focusing on the threat China poses to the United States.

The only woman in the GOP race, Haley has said transgender students competing in sports is “the women’s issue of our time” and has drawn praise from a leading anti-abortion group, which called her “uniquely gifted at communicating from a pro-life woman’s perspective.”

Entering the race in February, Haley has brought in $15.6 million. Making no mention of plans to go on the attack while speaking to reporters in Iowa earlier this month, Haley did explain why she showed up to the state fair in a shirt that read, “Underestimate me, that’ll be fun.”

VIVEK RAMASWAMY

The biotech entrepreneur and author of “Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam” is an audience favorite at multi-candidate events and has polled well despite not being nationally known when he entered the race.

Ramaswamy’s campaign says he met the donor threshold earlier this year, but this summer he rolled out “Vivek’s Kitchen Cabinet” to boost his donor numbers even more by letting fundraisers keep 10% of what they bring in for his campaign.

As he pursues a whirlwind campaign schedule, Ramaswamy has done virtually no formal debate prep, according to a senior adviser granted anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. The adviser said he’ll spend the day before the debate playing tennis and spending time with family.

CHRIS CHRISTIE

The former New Jersey governor opened his campaign by portraying himself as the only candidate ready to take on Trump. Christie called on the former president to “show up at the debates and defend his record,” calling him “a coward” if he doesn’t.

Last month, Christie — who kicked off his campaign in June — told CNN that he surpassed “40,000 unique donors in just 35 days.” He also has met the polling requirements.

DOUG BURGUM

Burgum, a wealthy former software entrepreneur now in his second term as North Dakota’s governor, has been using his fortune to boost his campaign.

He announced a program last month to give away $20 gift cards — “Biden Relief Cards,” hitting President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy — to as many as 50,000 people in exchange for $1 donations. Critics have questioned whether the offer violates campaign finance law.

Within about a week of launching that effort, Burgum announced he had surpassed the donor threshold. Ad blitzes in the early-voting states helped him meet the polling requirements.

However, Burgum may not be able to participate in Wednesday’s debate after he hurt his Achilles tendon playing basketball with members of his campaign staff on Tuesday and was taken to the emergency room. Burgum on Wednesday said he plans to have a walk-through of the debate stage on his injured leg on Wednesday and then assess with his campaign if he can do the debate.

The injury, which occurred Tuesday while Burgum was playing with campaign staff, was first reported by CNN.

MIKE PENCE

Trump’s vice president had met the polling threshold but struggled to amass a sufficient number of donors, raising the possibility he might not qualify for the first debate.

But on Aug. 8, Pence’s campaign announced that it had crossed the 40,000 donor threshold, and also that he had become the first candidate to formally submit his donor count to the RNC for verification.

An adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy said earlier this month that Pence had participated in roughly a half-dozen formal debate prep sessions to date, including at least one in which a campaign aide previously close to Trump is playing the part of the former president.

ASA HUTCHINSON

The former two-term Arkansas governor was the final candidate to meet the RNC’s qualifications. Satisfying the polling requirements but slowly working on passing the donor threshold, Hutchinson said Sunday on CNN that he had finally surpassed 40,000 unique donors.

Hutchinson is running in the mold of an old-school Republican and has differentiated himself from many of his GOP rivals in his willingness to criticize Trump. He posted pleas on Twitter for $1 donations to help secure his slot.

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WHO’S DECIDED NOT TO PARTICIPATE

DONALD TRUMP

The current GOP front-runner long ago satisfied the polling and donor requirements. But Trump has opted not to participate in Wednesday’s debate — and potentially any others that may follow.

“The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had,” Trump wrote on his social media site over the weekend. “I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”

His spokesman did not immediately clarify whether he plans to boycott every primary debate or just those that have currently been scheduled. Trump has also said that he would not sign the debate pledge.

He has floated a range of possible counterprogramming options, notably a competing interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who now has a program on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. The day after the debate, Trump is expected to go to Atlanta for booking on state racketeering charges over his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

WHO DIDN’T MAKE IT

FRANCIS SUAREZ

The Miami mayor told The Associated Press on Friday that he had qualified for the debate, but party officials disagreed. Senior RNC advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions said later that Suarez had not yet officially met the criteria, and Suarez was not among the candidates listed in the official on-stage lineup released Monday night.

Suarez has been one of the more creative candidates in his efforts to boost his donor numbers. He offered a chance to see Argentine soccer legend Lionel Messi’s debut as a player for Inter Miami, saying donors who gave $1 would be entered in a chance to get front-row tickets.

Still shy of the donor threshold, he took a page from Burgum’s playbook by offering a $20 “Bidenomics Relief Card” in return for $1 donations. A super political action committee supporting Suarez launched a sweepstakes for a chance at up to $15,000 in tuition, in exchange for a $1 donation to Suarez’s campaign.

LARRY ELDER

The conservative radio host claimed Monday that he had met the debate qualifications, sharing the letter sent to debate director David Bossie and saying that Elder planned to arrive in Milwaukee Tuesday afternoon.

Following the RNC’s announcement, Elder’s campaign said it planned to sue the party “over their eleventh-hour attempt to keep him off the Debate stage, even after he completed — and in some cases, exceeded — all of the requirements.”

PERRY JOHNSON

Johnson, a wealthy but largely unknown businessman from Michigan, said on social media earlier this month he had notched 40,000 donors. Last week, he said he had satisfied other qualifications and on Monday posted a photo of his signed debate pledge.

But after the RNC’s list was announced, without him, Johnson took his dissatisfaction to social media, writing that “the debate process has been corrupted, plain and simple” and adding that he would be in Milwaukee on Wednesday “and will have more to say” about the process on Tuesday.

WILL HURD

The former Texas congressman — the last candidate to enter the race, on June 22 — has said repeatedly that he would not pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee, a stance that would keep him off the stage even if he had the qualifying polling numbers.

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