Candidates Seek ‘Breakout Moments:’ First Republican Presidential Debate is ‘Enormously Important’ 

Wednesday’s GOP nomination debate appears to be important during a GOP presidential primary race that former President Donald Trump dominates.  

“It means a lot for me and every other candidate. It’s going to be the biggest audience any of us have spoken before in a long time,” said former governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie. Christie is making his second run for the White House. Earlier this month, he said, “It’s important for people to get to know you, to know who you are, what you want to do for the party and for the country.”

Christie is one of only eight candidates who have reached the donor and polling thresholds mandated by the Republican National Committee to qualify for the debate. 

Others who have qualified are the frontrunner, Trump, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former U.N. Ambassador and governor of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Governor of North Dakota Doug Burgum, author and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former Vice President Mike Pence. 

With another day to qualify, around a half dozen other Republican White House hopefuls are still trying to make it to the debate stage. 

Trump is the frontrunner for the nomination as he makes his third straight run for the White House. He hasn’t committed to attending the debate and said he wouldn’t sign an RNC pledge it is asking candidates to sign onto to take the stage. The pledge states candidates will support the Republican’s eventual presidential nominee — no matter who it is — and that they won’t take part in any date that the national party committee doesn’t sanction. 

Whether or not Trump is on stage, he will be a vital part of the debate and the several criminal indictments he is battling. However, for the other candidates, the showdown provides a chance to boost their brand names. 

“It’s obviously an opportunity for us because…of the eight candidates who’ve made the stage, we’re the least well known. By definition, that gives us the most upside,” said Gov. Burgum. 

Miami mayor Francis Suarez is still battling to make the stage. “For someone like me, it’s critical to qualify for the debate,” he said. 

Even Mike Pence, who has strong name recognition amongst Americans since he served four years as vice president, said last week, “My hope in that debate is that people may be able to get to know me a little bit better.”

Last week, DeSantis highlighted that the debate will “give us an opportunity to be able to speak to a large audience of voters who have not yet paid attention to this primary. I mean, you could have 10, 15, 20 million viewers, most of whom have probably never seen any of us in action before.”

GOP strategist: Debate is “enormously important”

Jim Merrill, longtime New Hampshire-based Republican consultant and a veteran of several GOP presidential campaigns, emphasized that “this debate is enormously important, not only for the top-tier candidates but for those who have yet to break through. This is the first national opportunity for a lot of these candidates to make an impression on voters.”

GOP strategist Ryan Williams agreed and highlighted that the first debate “is an opportunity for many of the candidates to make a first impression on the national stage. It also allows candidates who are far back in the pack to have a breakout moment.”

Merrill noted that “as we’ve seen in recent years, debates can give a candidate a surge that they need at a critical time, but it can also really do damage to a campaign if a debate doesn’t go well.” 

“I think, for Ron DeSantis, this is an opportunity to help reset his campaign and reestablish himself as the clear No. 2,” said Merrill. “And, I think, for candidates like Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, it’s an opportunity to break out. And, clearly, for Chris Christie, he’s been talking about this debate for months — I think in the hope Donald Trump is on stage.”

“I think, for him, it’s to prove that he can do more than just punch Donald Trump and expand his base of support. And for everyone else, it’s obviously an opportunity to introduce themselves to voters in early states around the country,” said Merrill. 

Another Republican consultant with several decades of presidential campaign experience, David Carney, noted that for the candidates on the stage, “the pressure’s high.”

Carney emphasized, “They need to think on their feet, look authentic and take the curveballs that come.”

According to Merrill, the candidates all seek the opportunity to go viral. “They have their policy positions down. This is all about creating a viral breakthrough moment. A moment of strength that gets beyond a 45-second answer about tax policy or farm policy.”