The Trump campaign is ramping up public pressure on the Republican National Committee (RNC) to scrap plans for additional presidential primary debates, urging the party to essentially crown former President Trump the presumptive nominee and turn the page to the 2024 general election.
The RNC, which is neutral in the primary process, is unlikely to pause the debates anytime soon, and some of Trump’s rivals were quick to respond with attacks against the former president, who skipped the first two debates and is not planning to attend the third next month.
But the Trump team’s push underscores the degree to which the former president has rendered the debates irrelevant and dominated the GOP primary thus far.
“This is an acknowledgment of not just how far ahead he is, but how his lead continues to grow,” said Sean Spicer, a former RNC spokesperson and former press secretary in the Trump White House. “My guess is that this is just a play to remind people that he is far ahead of anyone else.”
Just hours after candidates had walked off the stage in California last week, senior Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita said the RNC “should immediately put an end to any further primary debates so we can train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden and quit wasting time and money that could be going to evicting Biden from the White House.”
On Monday night, LaCivita and senior campaign adviser Susie Wiles issued another statement calling for the RNC to “immediately cancel” next month’s debate in Miami “and end all future debates” in order to focus its resources on ensuring voter integrity in 2024.
“He wants to push the other candidates out of the race, and this is a way to do that,” said Douglas Heye, a former spokesperson for the RNC.
The RNC did not respond to a request for comment on the Trump campaign’s recent statements.
Spicer predicted the RNC would move forward with its planned debate in Miami and would likely hold additional debates into early next year when the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are set to take place. He added that any decision to cancel the debates in the wake of the Trump campaign’s comments would look “unseemly.”
Trump appears to have significant leverage over whether to participate in future debates and in deciding whether the debates matter. His lead in the primary has held steady and has expanded in some polls in the past several weeks, indicating voters are not punishing him for skipping. The second debate also saw a drop in ratings, a sign voter interest may also be tapering off if Trump is not on the stage.
While Trump’s campaign views the debates as unnecessary in a race dominated by their candidate, rival campaigns saw the calls to do away with them as evidence the former president is worried about other candidates gaining momentum.
“Donald Trump should defend his record to the American people and debate Ron DeSantis on their vision and specific plans to stop American decline and restore our country. But Trump knows he can’t defend his record, and he isn’t the fighter he was in 2016,” Bryan Griffin, a spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) campaign, wrote on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.
Chris Christie, whose campaign has largely centered on attacking Trump’s fitness for office, called the former president “a hypocrite and a coward who will do and say anything to advance his own interests and silence some of his critics by ducking and trying to cancel debates.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who has seen her stock rise after each of the first two debates, has embraced attacks from Trump and his team in recent days, viewing it as a sign that she’s making an impact in the race.
Trump attacked Haley on Truth Social by calling her “Birdbrain” and claimed she has no loyalty after going back on her pledge not to run against Trump. The Trump campaign later sent a birdcage and bird food to Haley’s hotel room after the second debate, further ratcheting up tensions.
“Love this. Means we are in 2nd and moving up fast,” Haley wrote on social media in response.
Haley was polling at 3.2 percent in a RealClearPolitics average of national polls prior to the first debate on Aug. 23, and she is now polling at 6.9 percent after strong showings in each of the first two debates.
But even with that polling bump, Haley is jockeying with DeSantis for second, and Trump remains well clear of his rivals.
An NBC News poll conducted in mid-September showed Trump leading the field by 43 percentage points. An ABC News poll conducted at the same time had Trump ahead by 39 points. And a Morning Consult poll conducted days after the second debate showed Trump leading his rivals by 48 points.
With such a wide gap in polling, and with some candidates still unwilling to directly attack Trump, there is a sense that the debates amount to little more than a race for second place.
“Debates don’t correlate exactly to votes, but they do give the voter a sense of how the candidates make their case,” William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wrote for the Brookings Institution. “And, as the second Republican debate made clear, the battle for second place is on.”