CONCORD, NH — No one can force Donald Trump to debate, except maybe Donald Trump.
The Republican National Committee can’t do it. Neither did Fox News. Neither do the array of his advisers who think he should take on his Republican rivals on a stage in Milwaukee in August.
Above all, neither of those rivals is close enough to Trump in the polls to make him feel necessary. Arguably, like any favorite, he has more to lose than gain in a debate.
«He’s not going to debate unless he’s forced to by changing the polls,» said one person who encouraged Trump to take the stage. «I don’t agree with that, but it’s where he is.»
All of that helps explain why, in interviews with more than half a dozen aides, it became clear that, even in his private conversations, Trump is largely inclined to skip that first debate.
Trump is also exploring options for counterprogramming during the first debate, according to people familiar with his deliberations.
Trump’s absence would deprive RNC, Fox News and GOP primary voters of the most compelling and powerful figure in the GOP. And Trump knows he can keep the spotlight on himself by making his appearance conditional, at best.
Ripping at Fox for not covering it as he would like, Trump suggested on his Truth Social media platform that the cable network wants him to «show up and get the ratings.» Pointing to his huge lead — he has a 29 percentage point lead over second place — Ron DeSantis in the latest NBC News poll criticized Fox for wanting him to participate while trying to «advance, against hope,» DeSantis’s campaign.
«Sorry FoxNews, life doesn’t work like that!!!» He concluded.
And yet, there are voices in his ear telling him that he must jump on stage and that in the end, he will not be able to resist the allure of being the center of attention.
«He buys opinions from everyone and he’s going to get like 100 different opinions,» said one adviser. «He wants to know what everyone thinks, but he’ll ultimately do what he wants to do. In general, he asks everyone from the bellboy to [RNC Chair] Ronna McDaniel.»
Trump has not made a final decision, the aide said, «but if he doesn’t debate, I doubt he’ll stay home.»
In early 2016, Trump failed to appear in the final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses. Instead, he held a fundraiser for Veterans He ended up losing Iowa narrowly, but won the Republican nomination and the presidency.
Trump may be the focus of an absentee Republican debate, as he has been the party’s top talking point for the better part of the past eight years. He could also benefit if the rest of the field fires on DeSantis, the governor of Florida, to knock him out of second place.
Either way, several aides said they don’t see much incentive for Trump to mix with candidates far below him in the polls.
«Why would you elevate people like ‘Ada’ Hutchinson?» said a senior aide, using the misnomer Trump deploys for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
There’s another consideration: RNC rules require debate participants to pledge to support the party’s candidate in the general election. Trump finally agreed to do so in 2016 and then backed off. He has long kept open the threat that he would not back a candidate who defeated him in the nomination.
Some of the other candidates, including Hutchinson, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said they would not endorse Trump or criticized the loyalty oath.
Christie called the promise a «useless idea» in an interview this month on CNN, arguing that Republicans should be willing to support their candidate without making it a blood oath.
“It’s just the Donald Trump era that you need someone to sign something into a pledge,” Christie said. «So I think it’s a bad idea.»
But it’s unclear if they’ll break the polling and donor thresholds the RNC has set for candidates to win spots on the stage. Candidates must sign pledges only after they have qualified for the debates, a person familiar with the rules said.
However, what matters most for Trump and his rivals is what voters think about their participation or absence. Interviews in New Hampshire, where the country’s second nominating contest and first primary is taking place, suggest there are conflicting views between Trump’s supporters and opponents.
“I’m not worried that he doesn’t debate,” Matt Poulin, an insurance company owner and Trump fan of Bow, said in Concord on Tuesday. «I would like to see him debate, he has a lot of good information and he is improving.»
Carla Gericke, leader of the libertarian-minded Free State Project, said it’s up to Trump.
«Trump has an advantage in the sense that he’s been president. People know what his record is and they know he can put on a good show,» said Gericke, a swing Republican voter in the primary who, like Poulin, was in line. to see Trump speak at the Federation of Republican Women’s Lilac Luncheon.
In Hollis, where DeSantis spoke to voters Thursday, sentiments ran the gamut.
“The American people, especially the Republican Party and Republican voters, have a right to see that kind of thing in the face,” said Scott Maltzie, a Concord-area Republican primary voter who endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in 2016. and says that DeSantis is his first choice now.
“I mean, he’s going to go in there assuming he has this nomination locked up,” Maltzie said of Trump. «Well, the Republican Party isn’t about coronations. It’s about getting people to show what they stand for, and they have a lot of questions to answer, and a debate stage might be the perfect place to do that.»
But Bob Beckett, who handed out business cards identifying him as a Republican primary voter in the nation’s first state, said after DeSantis’ event in Hollis that he would prefer not to see Trump on the debate stage.
“I think it would be a distraction,” said Beckett, who voted for Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary and this time is leaning toward Christie. «Trump is not a politician guy.»