With top candidate Donald Trump absent from the first Republican Party primaries of 2024, eight of his Republican rivals will be battling for the party's top ex-president Wednesday night in Milwaukee in their first campaign.
The two-hour debate is scheduled to begin at 9:00 p.m. Easter time. The show is hosted by Fox News Channel and hosted by Brett Beyer and Martha McCallum.
CNN will cover the debate on cnn.com, including live updates, analysis and fact checks.
Eight candidates will take the stage: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Governor Doug Bulgum.
Here are six things to keep in mind during Wednesday's debate:
Can DeSantis withstand bright light?
With Trump absent from Wednesday's debate, DeSantis -- who ranks second among likely Republican voters in statewide polls and in states early voting this year -- could become the biggest target on the Milwaukee scene.
Finally, Trump is well-liked by Republican voters, which means an attack on the former president could turn off a wide range of mainstream voters. Instead, the 2016 primary appears to have repeated itself in a similar vein, with many Republican candidates primarily positioning themselves as the most realistic alternative to Trump in this area, a position currently held by DeSantis.
After winning re-election by 19 percentage points last year, DeSantis entered the reelection race with high expectations. However, he has yet to live up to that promise by abstaining from the vote while simultaneously trimming and regrouping his campaign.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Iowa Lincoln Day Dinner July 28 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Wednesday night's strong performance could steady the Florida governor's ship.
However, he had already experienced an embarrassing scene prior to the debate when his super PAC - with whom he had an extremely close relationship, having outsourced some of the functions normally performed as part of a candidate's own campaign - in a Memo wrote: "Advise him: 'Beat Ramaswamy and defend Trump when the absent former president is attacked by Christie. DeSantis distanced himself from the memo.
"That's a different topic. I have nothing in common with that. "I haven't read it and it doesn't reflect my strategy," DeSantis said Monday.
To Trump or not to Trump? That's the problem.
The former president's absence offers his Republican rivals a chance to introduce themselves and share their thoughts on the future on the biggest night of the 2024 campaign yet.
At least, that's what former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who debated Trump during the 2016 campaign before his resignation, suggests.
"The only person who is going to change your mind about Donald Trump is Donald Trump, not another candidate," Walker told CNN, offering advice he would give to some candidates. "If they're wasting their time attacking him, that's what they're doing, they're wasting their time." But if they make a breakthrough with passion, credibility and a bold agenda, people will be amazed. And because of the confusion.”
He added, "I'm not saying it's going to happen, but at least it gives them a fighting chance."
The extent to which the debate remains centered around Trump, despite Trump's decision to skip Milwaukee, also depends on the moderator of the debate. They said they wanted to try to highlight the contrast between Republican candidates, including Trump.
While Walker thinks at least half of Republican voters will be happy to turn the page, they don't have much desire to attack Trump. "It's like attacking your own family," he said.
The role of Trump critics without Trump
While others may enjoy the debate without Trump, at least three of the eight candidates who took the stage Wednesday -- Pence, Christie and Hutchinson -- have made criticism of the former president a campaign priority.
Since there is no chance of a direct confrontation with Trump, their strategy is seriously questioned.
Pence carved his own path as a loyal ideological conservative, urging his rivals to take a clearer stance in favor of state abortion restrictions - something those aware of the likely backlash in the general election may be reluctant to take such a stance.
Republican presidential nominee and former Vice President Mike Pence promotes the 2024 Republican presidential nomination at the Iowa State Fair August 11, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The former vice president's behavior on January 6, 2021 could also be a breeding ground for questions from Fox News anchors.
Christie is probably the biggest variable. He will be the only candidate on stage Wednesday night to have ever run in a presidential primary with a record of wins - just ask Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Honorable Mention in South Carolina?
Scott and Haley, two South Carolina challengers, were looking for breakthrough moments.
Scott is an active fundraiser and has an experienced campaign team. He had his moments in 2021 when he delivered the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address. As the only black Republican in the Senate, he could help the party expand its growing coalition of non-white conservatives.
Republican presidential candidate Senator Tim Scott poses for a selfie at the start of the National Day parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire July 4.
However, he was also a cheerful fighter who delivered an optimistic message that sometimes gets lost in the debate arena.
Haley has also provided a slew of new leaders for the Republican Party, but her campaign seems to believe the path to higher poll numbers lies with Ramaswamy, who has risen through the ranks in recent weeks.
On Monday, Haley slammed the entrepreneur and political newcomer, calling his call to cut US military aid to Israel "completely wrong."
Meanwhile, Ramaswamy tweeted videos of him training and practicing tennis this week, describing the training sessions in preparation for the debate.
Is a turnaround possible?
Trump will skip the debate, but he will not give up being the center of attention. He participated in a pre-taped interview with fired former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which is expected to be revealed during the debate. A source familiar with the matter told CNN that the interview would be published as a counter-program to the debate on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Then on Thursday, the focus will return to Trump, who will hand himself over to the Fulton County jail in the fourth such incident in recent months.
The Trump campaign also attempted to flood the airwaves with his advisers and allies before and after the debate. On Monday, however, Fox News told the Trump campaign that some former president's deputies would no longer be nominated to attend the discussion room because the former president was absent from the debate.
Trump will be at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and may also be throwing his own word grenades from the sidelines. On Tuesday, Truth Social posted on social media, "I'll be busy tomorrow night - enjoy!!!".
Without leaders on the ground, it's unclear whether a breakthrough is possible. Should such moments indeed occur, the cloud Trump is throwing over the Republican race in 2024 raises questions about whether any of his rivals will be able to build lasting momentum after Wednesday night's strong performance.
Anyone having an "Oops" moment?
While the frontrunners have weathered the big debates of recent presidential election cycles, those who want to be their party's best successor have lost their chances due to poor debate results.
During the 2012 Republican campaign, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry had a famous "bad" moment when he forgot the name of the federal department he was trying to eliminate.
In 2016, Christie stopped Rubio when he poked fun at his "recited 25-second speech" about Barack Obama. When Rubio successfully repeated the same words, Christie said, "That's it, everyone."
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren dashed the hopes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg within a minute of her scathing criticism during the 2020 Democratic primary by finally telling the audience that Bloomberg's nomination to oppose Trump was the "arrogant man." ' would replace. Another billionaire. "
Some Republican Party candidates in 2024 have hinted that they may attack their rivals during the debate phase. In the last few days, Christie defeated DeSantis. Haley released a statement on Monday criticizing Ramaswamy.
Whether either candidate faces the relentless attacks that have plagued presidential candidates in previous cycles -- and how they respond to it -- could transform the trajectory of the Republican race.
This story has been updated with more events.
CNN's Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.