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Trump flexes dominance with counter-programming to Republican debate

HIALEAH, Florida — Donald Trump escalated his campaign to make a mockery of the primary process Wednesday night by bringing a rally to the doorstep of the third Republican debate, raising pressure on his rivals and the party to wrap up the contest.

After paying no discernible political price for skipping the first two debates and blowing off making a pledge to back the eventual nominee, Trump sought to even more directly upstage Wednesday night’s faceoff in nearby Miami with his own event here. Trump has already demanded that the Republican National Committee scrap the debates and for his rivals to unite behind him. Now the campaign is aiming to burnish the perception of Trump’s inevitability and to persuade donors and Republican elected officials to stop propping up the other candidates.

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“It’s clear that President Trump has earned the support of our party, which raises the question: If the DNC won’t force Biden to debate, why are Republicans wasting time, money and resources on their own debates?” said Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Tex.), a Trump supporter who has campaigned with him in Iowa, referring to the Democratic National Committee. “I believe it is the right of voters to hear all platforms and ideas, but I think most of us can agree that the math doesn’t add up for another Republican challenger in 2024.”

Trump appeared more than an hour late, appearing after the debate began. In his speech, he ridiculed the debates for low ratings. “Nobody’s talking about it,” he said.

At times, Trump wanted to debate but calculated it wasn’t worth it, according to advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. In hindsight, they view his gamble on skipping the debates as especially savvy.

“It wasn’t always obvious to do that,” one adviser said. “There was some fear at first that someone else could catch fire without us there.”

At Wednesday’s rally, Trump polled the audience: “You think we did the right thing by not participating?” The crowd responded with cheers. The long meandering speech featured little new material, and by an hour in, large swaths of the crowd had cleared out.

Besides the debates, Trump has also eschewed other forums where he might appear onstage alongside other candidates, including traditional “cattle calls” that were considered must-go opportunities for presidential hopefuls. Trump has told allies that debating would only give others a chance to attack him onstage.

“He’s the front-runner by a mile and there’s no upside to him,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who endorsed Doug Burgum, his home state governor who is running for president but did not make the third debate. “I think it’s too bad. It’s not nearly as much fun to watch presidential debates without him,” Cramer added of Trump. “The fact that he’s a rulebreaker is the brand that’s gotten him where he is. I think that’s part of the appeal. I know that’s part of the appeal.”

Instead of debating, Trump has often wooed candidates and others at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida seaside resort, or working the phones.

“I think it’s working for him and he’s going to keep doing it,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has endorsed Trump.

Wednesday night’s split-screen captures the paradox of Trump’s running as the de facto incumbent and as an outside bomb-thrower at the same time. Another Trump adviser said that while the campaign understands that the RNC has to run an open primary process, “we don’t have to be a part of it or make it easy.”

“The main attraction is the rally, it’s not the debate,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said ahead of the speech.

Trump has told advisers he wants to pressure RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to stop the debates and for the RNC to back his candidacy. McDaniel has gained internal support from Susan Wiles, one of Trump’s top aides, but other advisers are frequently critical of the RNC and how it is handling 2024. Trump so far has not publicly attacked McDaniel like he has other advisers but has mocked her privately for saying she is “neutral.”

Trump and his aides had hoped to keep the RNC from announcing another debate after Wednesday night, but the RNC has gone forward with another event in Tuscaloosa and plans to do more — which are likely to lead to escalating attacks.

RNC officials describe the recent months as frustrating, with Trump pressuring them to cancel debates, some donors upset over the state of the race and unwilling to write big checks and a sense of disappointment among top people in the party about the squabbling and tone that has dominated the contests. One person close to party leadership said they were faced with a devil’s dilemma: If they go along with Trump, they look like they’re stacking the deck for him, and if they don’t, they risk his wrath.

Trump has privately described the debates as “stupid,” according to an adviser who spoke to him, and says they make the Republican Party look bad. While he has pushed advisers to urge the RNC to cancel them, some people close to him believe they have only helped him, as a breakout moment for another candidate has not come.

Trump’s rivals have occasionally attacked him for skipping the debates, but just as often have taken out their frustrations on the RNC, criticizing the format or criteria to qualify. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis offered to “wear a boot on my head” if Trump attended the debate, and his campaign started selling golf balls labeled: “Ron DeSantis has a pair. He shows up.”

In response to such taunts, Trump said Wednesday that holding a televised rally was harder than debating.

Trump has lashed out at Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) after she gave DeSantis her coveted endorsement. And the main pro-Trump super PAC pumped $1 million into attacking DeSantis this week. He has also sharpened his attacks on former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who has risen in recent polls.

But on a football field here festooned with American flags and lined with merchants selling pro-Trump shirts, thousands piled in hours early in the sweltering sun before Trump spoke. The debate seemed far from their minds.

“He’s leading in the Republican Party by so much they shouldn’t even have debates anymore,” said Orlando Perez, a 23-year old mechanical engineering student wearing the day’s hottest swag: a T-shirt bearing Trump’s mug shot. “He’s up nationally on DeSantis and Haley and Vivek and all the others losers by so much. It’s over.” Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy is another presidential candidate who appeared on the Wednesday night debate stage.

The joyous crowd, decked out with Trump apparel, rhinestone cowboy hats and flags, was a stark contrast to the buttoned-up audiences of donors and party officials who usually fill the debate audience. Like the neighborhoods around the rally, the attendees were largely Latino and Cuban.

“For all intents and purposes Trump has this thing in the bag,” said Julio Sixto, a retired real estate agent, who came with his family because he said he emigrated from Cuba and feared America was becoming a communist country. “Many of those people should consider suspending their campaign. It’s a waste of time because they aren’t gaining any traction.”

Charles Large, who works in financial services and splits his time between Florida and Maine, said he understood why Trump skipped the debate. He had vacillated on Trump over the years, getting tired of his “braggadocio and attitude,” he said, but he liked the “results.”

“Would I like to see him there? Yeah I would. But it’s smart not to go,” Large said. “Isn’t it unbelievable the front-runner is so dominant he doesn’t even have to go though?”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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