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Is Donald Trump Scared to Debate Ron DeSantis?

DeSantis could be so far behind Donald Trump in the polls by August that he would need to hit Trump hard if the former president does decide to take the stage.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image by Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Donald Trump, who never backs down from a challenge, is making an exception to his pugilistic nature. He may not attend the first GOP presidential debate that is coming up in August in Milwaukee. Trump believes that he will get biased questions against him that he thinks would be unfair.

Is Trump Fearful of Fox News?

But the moderator will be none other than Bret Baier from Fox News, who seems to be no enemy to Trump, at least at first blush. Baier is known for calling balls and strikes fairly during his newscasts and is not one of the opinion hosts at the conservative network. So, his questions at the debate should be right down the middle. Trump, however, is still reportedly mad at Baier for not reporting on the “stolen election” claims that Trump and his supporters espoused after voting concluded in 2020.

Maybe Trump Is Scared of the Competition

Trump may be using this reticence to hide a larger fear. He does have competition and they will be gunning for him hoping the former president makes a mistake or loses his temper. He hasn’t been on the debate stage since 2020 and he faces an expected challenge from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is coming off a landslide victory in his re-election campaign in 2022.

Plus, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will be gunning for Trump as will conservative biotech entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy who has proven to be articulate in his campaign. Haley has run a mistake-free race so far. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is expected to be in the race for the first debate and he will be taking the evangelical and social conservative lane. Scott could remind the audience that Trump is ethically and morally challenged as evidenced by the former president’s significant legal troubles.

The Field Wouldn’t Get the Trump Insult Treatment

Trump is the clear front-runner and would have the most to lose in a debate. He usually relies on insults and other types of rancor during forums. DeSantis has been given the “DeSanctimonious” moniker by Trump, although Haley, Ramaswamy, and Scott have at this point avoided Trump’s penchant for negative attacks.

Playing Nice with CNN

Trump’s disrespect of Fox News is also interesting since he has agreed to participate in a town hall thrown by CNN next week. Trump has blasted CNN in the past for being “fake news.” It doesn’t make sense that he would shun the normally friendly Fox News yet go on enemy territory at CNN unless there was another reason he doesn’t want to debate on Fox. Usually, front-runners take a risk when they are so far ahead, and a debate can erode support or spring someone else to a media and fund-raising bump should they take Trump down a notch.

DeSantis could be so far behind Trump in the polls by August that he would need to hit Trump hard if the former president does decide to take the stage. Trump knows this and that could be the real reason he doesn’t want to debate. Trump could be fearful of DeSantis who has a more caustic and combative personality than Haley, Ramaswamy, and Scott.

But Trump has focused on his unwillingness to debate because of the probing questions he could get. Trump has said on his Truth Social app that he led by “seemingly insurmountable numbers” and would have to reply to “hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP … hating anchors asking the ‘questions.’”

But that’s the purpose of a debate – answer uncomfortable queries and attempt to deflect or bat them out of the park. Presidential debaters look for that one knock-out punch soundbite that can be repeated by the media and help turn the tide of a campaign. Without Trump on the stage to create a high stakes environment, the first debate will be much tamer and could even be boring.

One other problem that Trump has with the Fox News forum is that RNC head Ronna McDaniel wants to have everyone who participates in the first debate take a pledge that candidates will support the winner of the primary in the general election. Trump never wants to have his options limited and he loves being the king maker in elections, which means he could refuse to support DeSantis in the general should the former president lose the primary. 

So, for all these reasons Trump will likely skip the first debate and may even refuse to appear during the second one. He could lose his lead with a bad performance and swing and miss at questions from moderators he doesn’t like. Thus, he won’t be able to suck the oxygen out of the room and allow his competition to make him look bad.

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Author Expertise and Experience

Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.