Debate Expert, Public Relations Strategist Set Expectations for 2nd GOP Presidential Debate

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
September 26, 20232024 Election
Debate Expert, Public Relations Strategist Set Expectations for 2nd GOP Presidential Debate
Former South Carolina Governor and UN ambassador Nikki Haley (R) looks on as (from L) Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy speak during a break in the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wis., on Aug. 23, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

As seven Republican candidates make final preparations for their second 2024 presidential debate, a debate expert and a public relations consultant see an opportunity for former President Donald Trump to play to a key constituency by skipping the event—as well as a narrowing window for the other candidates to change the direction of the race.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are set to appear at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, on Wednesday for the second 2024 Republican presidential debate. Meanwhile, President Trump is set to again skip the debate, and instead to travel to Detroit, Michigan, to meet with striking United Auto Worker (UAW) union members.

Trump’s Counterprogramming Play

Appearing in an interview with NTD News’ “Capitol Report,” public relations consultant Libby Krieger credited President Trump with a “very smart counterprogramming” play for deciding to skip the second debate to instead meet with striking auto workers.

Ms. Krieger, who has worked as a reporter and conservative political commentator, and who now works for PR firm Communications Counsel, said these striking union workers represent a constituency that tends to swing for Democrats—but that President Trump could win over.

“The Democrats used to have a stronghold with these union … blue-collar, working-class voters. However, we saw that shift a little bit with Donald Trump in 2016, and 2020. He really has the ability to resonate with these workers, although he is a billionaire.”

Ms. Krieger said that despite his own wealth, President Trump has positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate who may appeal to working-class voters who feel “like they’ve been left behind by these big corporations and the government.”

President Biden met with the striking UAW workers on Tuesday, beating President Trump to the picket line by a day. In a post on his Truth social media account, President Trump argued that President Biden’s policies—including what he termed a “WEAK” stance on China and a push for the U.S. to transition to electric vehicles—is harming the UAW workers. President Trump further suggested that President Biden was only joining the striking auto workers because he “saw that I was going to Michigan this week.”

Ms. Krieger said President Trump’s decision to counterprogram the debate by meeting with striking auto workers could be especially helpful in winning key swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. President Trump won Ohio in 2020, but fell short in the vote tallies in the other three states.

Ms. Krieger largely agreed with President Trump’s characterization of President Biden’s decision to meet with UAW members.

“[President Biden] has joined [the UAW workers] this week in Michigan, because he knows that he’s on thin ice as a Democrat pushing these policies on electric vehicles, and that is something that these workers are not going to be too fond of,” she said.

Aaron Kall—who serves as the director of debate for the University of Michigan’s Debate Program and who authored the book “Debating The Donald”—also gave the former president plaudits for counterprogramming Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, albeit for different reasons than Ms. Krieger.

While President Trump is set to meet union workers in his state, Mr. Kall told “Capitol Report” that the former president’s decision to skip the debate serves to diminish the opportunity his primary opponents have to cut into his polling lead. President Trump currently leads the Republican field by more than 42 points across the RealClearPolitics average of Republican primary polls.

“Why give people an opportunity to take shots at [President Trump] and kind of legitimize their place in the race?” Mr. Kall said.

He said that unless the other Republican candidates are able to start cutting into the former president’s polling lead, he sees “no reason” for President Trump to attend any of the other Republican primary debates.

The debate expert said President Trump’s decision to skip the debate may also serve to slight the Fox News network and the leadership at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. President Trump has indicated that he has had an increasingly strained relationship with Fox News. He has also expressed his dismay that the Reagan Foundation Chairman, Fred Ryan, also served as the CEO of The Washington Post—another media outlet with which he has had an adversarial relationship.

Few Opportunities to Change the Race

Mr. Kall said that the 2nd Republican presidential primary debate represents one of the few remaining opportunities for one of the other Republican candidates to change the course of the race. He noted that the 2016 Republican primary cycle saw more frequent debates, whereas the third Republican debate of this cycle is set for November, and the first primary contest is scheduled for January in Iowa.

“These are rare opportunities the candidates really have to take advantage of,” Mr. Kall said.

Mr. Kall said that if any of the other Republican candidates are to change their fortunes in the 2024 primary contest, they may have to challenge the frontrunner more directly.

“They can’t just attack each other and hope to do well, they really have to take the fight to Donald Trump, who is the front-runner,” Mr. Kall said.

He said the first Republican debate on Aug. 23 saw few instances of the other Republicans launching direct attacks on President Trump.

Based on their performances from the first debates, Mr. Kall said he believed that Ms. Haley, Mr. DeSantis, and Mr. Ramaswamy have a good chance of performing well in this second round, but that they would also face the most attacks on the debate stage.

“They’ll be the center of the stage, they’ll get the majority of the questions and attention from the moderators and the other candidates,” Mr. Kall said. “And it’ll be really interesting to see how they stack up against that kind of getting fired [on] from all sides. In the first debate, nobody attacked Governor DeSantis, which was very surprising given that he was number two at that time.”

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