Eight Republicans line up in Milwaukee
Trump's plan to usurp debate coverage
Iowa poll offers hope for rivals
This is the most important week of the 2024 US Election campaign so far. As we await Donald Trump's arrest in Georgia, two setpiece TV events will focus minds on the race to be Republican Nominee.
Fox News host the first TV debate for that contest, but Trump has swerved it in favour of an interview with ex-Fox flamethrower Tucker Carlson. Already recorded, it is assumed the interview will be released to coincide with the debate, thus taking viewers away. Trump remains the ultimate media manipulator.
Does this signal a Trump v Murdoch war?
Trump is certainly entitled to take this stance, being 40% ahead in the polls with everything to lose, nothing to gain. No sensible strategist would advise giving his rivals the chance to attack.
But this spat goes deeper. Trump is referring to Fox as the enemy, accusing them of trying to hurt him with bad pictures. It has long been reported that Rupert Murdoch is sick of Trump and that the network are considering alternatives. This explains why Glenn Youngkin remains competitive in the betting, despite not even entering the race yet.
If so, the debate could spell bad news for Trump, emphasising his alleged crimes and failures. Power within the right wing media ecosystem has certainly changed during the Trump era, but Murdoch and Fox remain the biggest players.
Will Carlson interview upstage Fox?
A sign of that was Carlson's willingness to walk away from Fox and do his own thing. He's now effectively a propagandist the Russian state, and far-Right extremists everywhere, pushing their Great Replacement (conspiracy) Theory. Expect Tucker and Trump to share disinformation regarding Ukraine.
Whilst both events will be followed by the ultra-engaged, Trump's appearance may well overshadow the debate. If nobody threatens Trump in the polls soon, these events will fade into irrelevance
Nevertheless, this does offer a chance for his rivals to break through. To at least advertise their credentials and in the case of his staunchest critics, such as Chris Christie, launch verbal missiles at his former boss. Or, for those in lockstep with Trump's positions - such as Vivek Ramaswamy on Ukraine - a chance to defeat the mainstream Republican position.
Will Trump absence affect him?
As it stands, Trump is totally dominant. His support appears entrenched and even short odds of 1.47 for the nomination are only inflated by his vast legal peril.
However by historical standards, it is still very early in the process. In theory, polls merely reflect goodwill from GOP primary voters towards their former President. As opposed to a considered view on how the party should fight the next election.
That poll lead could prove softer than we assume. Indeed, the latest A-rated Selzer poll in Iowa offers plenty of hope for the anti-Trump faction.
Also, I wouldn't underestimate the damage done by swerving scrutiny. In 2016, Trump swerved the Iowa debate before their caucus and duly lost there. Likewise, local party officials in Wisconsin opposed to Trump will emphasize this disregard for local scrutiny.
Will anyone defend election denial?
For my money, this is the critical dynamic. Trump's denial of the 2020 election is at complete odds with overall US opinion. It is a terrible narrative to take into a general election. Merely accommodating that view is risky for Fox News, who have already lost a $787M lawsuit over it. If rivals are going to hurt Trump, this and January 6th offer their best, perhaps only, route.
All of his rivals have, at some point, acknowledged the result. Yet, in contrast to the wider electorate, doing so requires taking a position contrary to majority GOP opinion. Thus criticism from most has generally been muted. At the recent The Blaze Summit, only Mike Pence did vociferously.
Will Christie attacks catch on?
Chris Christie was not at that event, but he is very much leading the attacks. His daily TV interviews have become essential viewing, albeit less so on the networks favoured by Trump's base. Now he has a proper national platform.
Christie is toxic to much of the GOP base and therefore is very unlikely to win this nomination. He is, however, a brilliant spoiler and attack dog. In 2016, his constant sneers and debate stage assault destroyed Marco Rubio going into the New Hampshire primary. Having killed the betting favourite, days later, Christie endorsed Trump. He is sure to create numerous moments perfect for short, viral social media clips.
Can DeSantis reset?
Since launching his campaign, Ron DeSantis has bombed. His chance of winning the presidency has slipped from 34% to just 4% in less than a year, based on Betfair's exchange odds. Ramaswamy - whom I regard as a spoiler candidate to enable Trump and might very well end up as his running mate - has surpassed him.
Nevertheless, polls still indicate DeSantis is the principal alternative. If Trump implodes, he is best-placed to pick up those voters. I think his problems are partly due to pile-ons from Trump media, and presumably the others will go after him on the debate stage. It may finish him but equally, this event offers a chance to reset.
*Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.