Martha MacCallum on What to Expect From Wednesday’s Debate and Who Has the Most to Gain

By A.J. Katz 

UPDATE: Former President Trump announced Friday afternoon after this interview was conducted that he is not participating in the first Republican primary debate. He was recently interviewed by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and that pre-taped interview will be released on social media the same night as the debate, according to the Washington Post.

It is not yet clear on which platform the interview will appear. Carlson occasionally posts interviews and commentary on X (Twitter), while Trump has his own social media platform, Truth Social. Regardless, Trump’s absence from the debate is a blow to Fox News. It’s a positive for his competitors, however.




Believe it or not, the 2024 presidential campaign season is upon us, with the first Republican primary debate scheduled to take place in Milwaukee this coming Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

Fox News anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier will be on the call, co-moderating what will most certainly be the first of many presidential debates over the next 12+ months.

The question on everyone’s mind is: Will former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner, even show up to this Fox News-GOP primary debate? He very well may not, but no one knows for sure. He probably isn’t sure yet either.

If Trump goes through with his promise to skip Wednesday night’s festivities, the other candidates will have two hours to make a name for themselves in front of millions of viewers/potential GOP primary voters.

MacCallum told us by phone this past Thursday, “62% of Republican voters want an alternative or are open to an alternative to Trump.” This race isn’t over just yet, while Trump has the commanding lead, the race for second place is still a reasonably close one, with former Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the driver’s seat, for now.

That said, Gov. DeSantis is seeing his stock fall, and a recent New York Times story won’t exactly reverse that trend going into the debate. This past week, the Times got its hands on a leaked batch of research memos from a firm associated with a DeSantis super PAC, which effectively details DeSantis’ debate strategy: 1) “To take a sledgehammer” to Vivek Ramaswamy, a political newcomer who is rising in the polls. 2) He should “defend Donald Trump” when fellow candidate Chris Christie inevitably attacks the former president. 3) He needs to “attack [President] Joe Biden and the media” no less than three to five times.

More ammunition for lower-polling candidates and a chance to potentially move up in the polling.

MacCallum discussed with us how she’s preparing for this Fox News GOP primary debate, how Trump’s presence or absence will influence the proceedings, and a candidate to keep an eye on going into Wednesday.

TVNewser: What does your debate preparation process consist of?

MacCallum: Lately, it consists of questions popping into my head at all hours of the night.  I want to update that one or tweak that and make a change; or a new poll comes out, and I want to bring that in as well. There’s a lot of information coming in these days.

We are getting together almost daily to go through and update and gather our questions together. As we all know in this business, it’s constantly changing, and I’m sure we’ll be making changes on Wednesday morning as well.

This is a process that I’ve always found interesting. We have a small group of us – me and Bret and a couple others who are putting our heads together. I really like that collaborative process where we kick the tires on these questions and make them better. It’s exciting.

You co-moderated two GOP undercard primary debates in the 2016 election cycle. How are you applying learnings from those events as you prepare for this one?

I think the experience of doing them makes you makes you better. It’s a high-stress environment for the candidates, and I just remember sitting there and looking into their faces as you’re getting ready to ask the question. While we’re preparing, they’re all preparing and have people firing questions at them. You realize that they’ve made a lot of sacrifices, they’re putting themselves on the line, and they have this big dream of being President of the United States. At any moment, they can put themselves on an upward trajectory, or they can maybe blow it.

It’s an interesting environment. Debates have been going on since the beginning of the country. I think it’s history and I’m really honored to be a part of it.

We still don’t know if former President Trump is coming to show up. How does that uncertainty factor into your prep process? Are you preparing for two different debates, in a sense?

It’s one debate with questions that would be directed towards the former president if he’s there. The topics don’t really change, honestly. But obviously, there would be questions that would be there for him as well, if he’s there.

How do you plan to broach the topic of the indictments? It’s the top story right now. Will his presence in the room impact that at all, or do you just plan on going about it in the same fashion?

We always make room in a debate for news of the day, or the biggest story of the day, separate from all the issues that we want to cover. At this moment, and I expect it will be next week as well, it is obviously one of the biggest stories of the day. It will be addressed, and I anticipate that the candidates are going to want to let voters understand their feelings about the indictments and make their own argument for why they think that makes them a better person for the job. It will absolutely come up either way, and we’re not going to spend a whole night on it, but it will absolutely be part of the debate, for sure.

What are some of the top issues for Republican voters that you and Bret Baier plan to raise during the debate?

In a debate, one of the most interesting things is to see what issues that people on stage differ on.

There are two areas that I think all of us realize are kind of divisive within the Republican Party, one would be abortion, which was a bigger issue than Republicans thought it would be in the midterm election. I feel like they’ve all had time since then to realize that they need to have a strong perspective and a strong answer on those issues. So that’s clearly one.

The other is that there’s a divide in the Republican Party over the future of the U.S. role in Ukraine. I think that something voters, Republicans, Independents are going to be sitting up and listening to their answers on. So those are areas that will be a focus.

Is there one Republican candidate participating who you think might surprise viewers on Wednesday night?

We have new polls that just came out last night, and [Vivek] Ramaswamy doubled his number from June. He was at 5% in June, and now he’s at 11%. So, he is experiencing a bit of a bit of a surge. He’s still at 11% compared to Donald Trump’s 53%. There’s a big gulf between those numbers. But I think anytime you have a candidate who is rising in the group, that puts the focus on them. I had Kellyanne Conway on my show yesterday, she said, “they all want to take out [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, because he was the early front runner to be the contender for Trump.” This is a battle between these individuals to say “I’m the person who should be going head to head with the former president.”

We know 62% of Republican voters want an alternative or are open to an alternative to Trump. You have about 37% hardcore Trump support, and then you’ve got a mix between people who are persuadable or call themselves persuadable or are non-Trump. That’s a pretty big number that is still up for grabs, and the debate in my mind is really all about the maybe two, maybe three people who can get themselves into that next year.

Interesting. I think it’s probably better for the candidates if Trump doesn’t show up, because they’ll get to really debate one another and make more of a name for themselves.

Right, and then maybe better for voters because they are already considering alternatives, which the polling shows us. It would give them an opportunity to really hear from them a bit more.

What’s one debate moment that sticks out to you? It could be from one that you’ve moderated, or from a past presidential debate,

I think we all remember that electric debate in 2015 with Trump at the center of the stage. That was clearly a huge night. Bill Hemmer and I were doing the undercard debate that night, and we swung around the other side of the room and watched as that whole thing unfolded. I think it was a moment when everybody understood that Donald Trump was a force to be reckoned with the Republican Party, and he was kind of knocking people off both sides of the stage debate after debate.

There are people over the course of politics who are true game changers, and regardless of what you think of President Trump, he changed the game in a huge way; whether you’re a supporter or a critic of how he did that.

You look back at Bill Clinton, sort of a young rising star on the scene and you wonder who that next person could be. I think that Ramaswamy has been taking advantage of the media in a way that maybe other candidates haven’t or haven’t been able to grasp in the way that he did. This isn’t a debate environment, but I’m thinking about him with his rap in Iowa last week weekend, which sort of reminded me of Clinton with his saxophone on Arsenio Hall. It’s a moment when they’re saying, “I’m young, I’m energetic, pay attention to me.”

Obviously, there are great debate moments in history – when [former President Ronald] Reagan said, “I won’t allow my opponent’s youth and inexperience …” I think you look for those moments. And I’m hoping there’ll be a couple of laughs out there because life is very serious, and the issues that we talk about are very serious. I think if a candidate can kind of break through and have a light moment on stage, sometimes that resonates with people as well. Reagan certainly nailed that in that moment, and I think it made him human and relatable, and kind of diffused the age issue for him. Obviously, age is a big issue again this time around in the general election with both the top contenders, and maybe one of them kind of can make a moment on that issue. We’ll see.

When the clock strikes 11 p.m. ET, what do you hope that the viewing audience—whether it be the GOP primary voter, or whomever else is watching—has taken away from this event?

I genuinely hope that they feel like the things that are on their minds, the questions that they have, got some answers. I don’t want people to walk away at the end of the night and say, “Why did they ask this? Why didn’t they ask that?” Granted, we can’t ask about every single topic, we already have too many questions.

I hope they feel like we’re addressing the things they care about. Although so much of what’s in the news sucks up all the oxygen in the room, when you talk to voters, they care about the economy, they care about Ukraine, they care about abortion, they care about kids and school, and I want to make sure that they walk away feeling satisfied that they heard from these candidates and that they have a better understanding of what these people would do if they if they elect them. That’s the main goal. I also hope to wake up in the morning and say, “Hmm…that was a really interesting moment!” about something.