In a Republican presidential primary race dominated by former President Donald Trump, you can’t underestimate the importance of Wednesday’s kickoff GOP nomination debate, a Fox News-hosted primetime showdown in Milwaukee.
"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," former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, making his second run for the White House, told Fox News Digital earlier this month. "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 eight candidates who have reached the polling and donor thresholds mandated by the Republican National Committee to qualify for the initial debate.
The others are former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Ambassador and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and biotech entrepreneur and bestselling author Vivek Ramaswamy.
With one more day to go to qualify, roughly a half dozen other Republican White House hopefuls are still aiming to make the stage.
Trump, the commanding frontrunner for the nomination as he makes his third straight White House run, hasn’t committed to attending the debate and has said he won’t sign an RNC pledge it is requesting the candidates make to take the stage. The pledge states that candidates will support the GOP’s eventual presidential nominee — regardless of who it is — and that they won’t take part in any debate not sanctioned by the national party committee.
Regardless of whether he’s on the stage, the former president and the multiple criminal indictments he’s legally battling will be firmly in the debate’s spotlight. But for the other candidates, the showdown provides a rare 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," Burgum, who’s not well known outside North Dakota, told Fox News a week ago during an interview at the Iowa State Fair.
Mayor Francis Suarez, who’s far from a brand name outside of South Florida, is still fighting to make the stage.
"For someone like me, it’s critical" to qualify for the debate," Suarez told Fox News a couple of days ago.
Even Pence, who enjoys strong name recognition among Americans thanks to his four years as vice president, said last week that "my hope in that debate is that people may be able to get to know me a little bit better."
And DeSantis, in a Fox News Radio interview last week, 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."
Longtime New Hampshire-based GOP consultant Jim Merrill, a veteran of numerous Republican 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."
Republican communicator and strategist Ryan Williams agreed, highlighting 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," Merrill said. "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."
David Carney, another Republican consultant with decades of presidential campaign experience, noted that, for the candidates on the stage, "the pressure’s high."
"They need to think on their feet, look authentic and take the curveballs that come," Carney emphasized.
And all the candidates are seeking an opportunity to go viral.
"They have their policy positions down," Merrill said. "This is all about creating viral breakthrough moments. A moment of strength that gets beyond a 45-second answer about tax policy or farm policy."