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Most GOP presidential candidates will be in Milwaukee for the party's primary debate


Most of the major Republican candidates for president will be in Milwaukee tonight for the first GOP debate of the 2024 race.


Now, Milwaukee also will host the Republican National Convention next year, which is a sign of just how important the swing state of Wisconsin is. Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin in 2016 and then lost it in 2020 while pretending to win it. Tonight, Trump will not be on stage. The Republican front-runner declined to meet his rivals. He will instead do a separate interview with the fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson, while also preparing to surrender to Georgia authorities tomorrow to face his fourth criminal indictment. This one concerns his failed efforts to stay in office after his 2020 election defeat.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Frank Ordoñez covers Trump and the White House. He's in Milwaukee for the debate. Franco, the candidates have been campaigning. It feels, though, like this is the official start of the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Yeah. It really is. I mean, it's a big day for Republicans. I mean, thousands of the party faithful are here. The weather's been nice. You're seeing the signs, the hats. You know, I've talked with folks from Arkansas, Florida and Massachusetts. One, Ron Kaufman, he's a party representative from Massachusetts and a longtime GOP operative. Here's how he kind of summed up the mood.

RON KAUFMAN: People like being here, and they're pumped. I wish all the candidates were going to be here, but that's not going to change anything.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. He's talking about Trump not going to be there tonight. What does it mean that he's not showing?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, Steve mentioned some of it. You know, I mean, no question it puts a damper on things. People are not happy that he's skipping. But Trump says he doesn't want to prop up his rivals, being that he's so far ahead, and he really is far ahead. I mean, the campaign says Americans already know what kind of President Trump's going to be, so he doesn't need to sell himself like some of the lesser-known candidates do. But it doesn't look, as Steve noted, that he's going to entirely cede the spotlight. He did tease yesterday that he's going to be busy tonight. He has some counterprogramming planned. You know, He has that interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, which could run at the same time as the debate, which is also on Fox.

MARTÍNEZ: And we mentioned earlier how Milwaukee is hosting the Republican National Convention next year. Why else has that city become so important for Republicans?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, really, it's critical to both parties. President Biden was actually in Milwaukee last week touting his economic record, and his campaign just released a local ad doing much of the same. You know, Wisconsin is truly a state up for grabs. In the last two presidential elections, in 2016, Trump won by less than 25,000 votes. Four years later, Biden did the same thing.

MARTÍNEZ: So Republicans maybe see an opportunity to win it back.

ORDOÑEZ: That's for sure. I mean, the Wisconsin state party chairman, Brian Schimming, says the big investment in Wisconsin for Republicans really is no accident.

BRIAN SCHIMMING: I always say Wisconsin isn't one of 50 states for this election. We're one of about five. And really, the White House runs through Wisconsin.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he really remembers when Wisconsin was considered flyover country. But now he says voters can run into presidential candidates at the convenience store.

MARTÍNEZ: So how big, then, is the window for these candidates to make an impression?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, they really need to seize the moment. As we said before, they are way behind. You know, it is common for a candidate who does well on the debate stage to get a bit of a bump in the polls and also in fundraising. So it's a big moment, but it could also be short-lived. And that's because Trump announced he plans to travel to Georgia tomorrow and surrender to authorities in the alleged election interference case. So focus is likely to turn back to Trump soon, if it ever leaves him at all.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Frank Ordoñez. Thanks a lot.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.