CONCORD, N.H. — No one can force Donald Trump to debate — except, maybe, Donald Trump.

The Republican National Committee can’t do it. Neither can Fox News. Nor can the set of his advisers who think he should match up with his GOP rivals on a stage in Milwaukee in August.

Most of all, none of those rivals are close enough to Trump in polling to make him feel it’s necessary. Arguably, like any front-runner, he has more to lose than gain from a debate.

“He is not going to debate unless he’s forced to by changing polling,” said a person who has encouraged Trump to take the stage. “I disagree with it, but it is where he is.”

All of that helps explain why, in interviews with more than a half-dozen advisers, it was clear that — even in his private conversations — Trump is leaning heavily toward skipping 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 the RNC, Fox News and GOP primary voters of the Republican Party’s most compelling — and most powerful — figure. And Trump knows he can keep attention on himself by making his appearance conditional, at best.

Ripping Fox for failing to cover him as he would like, Trump suggested on his Truth Social media platform that the cable network wants him to “show up and get them ratings.” Noting his big edge — he has a 29 percentage-point advantage over second-place Ron DeSantis in the latest NBC News polling — he criticized Fox for wanting him to participate while trying to “promote, against all hope,” the DeSantis campaign.

“Sorry, FoxNews, life doesn’t work that way!!!” he concluded.

And still, there are voices in his ear that say that he should jump onto the stage — and that, in the end, he won’t be able to resist the allure of being in the spotlight.

“He shops opinions with everyone and will get, like, 100 different opinions,” an adviser said. “He wants to know what everyone thinks but will ultimately do what he wants to do. In general, he is asking everyone, from the bellman to [RNC Chair] Ronna McDaniel.”

Trump hasn’t made a final decision, the adviser said, “but if he does not debate, I doubt he’s staying home.”

In early 2016, Trump was a no-show at the final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses. Instead, he held a fundraiser for veterans. He ended up losing Iowa narrowly but won the GOP nomination and the presidency.

It’s possible that Trump would be the center of a Republican debate in absentia, as he has been the main topic of discussion for the party for most of the last eight years. He might also stand to benefit if the rest of the field turns its fire on DeSantis, the governor of Florida, to knock him from the second-place perch.

Either way, several advisers said they don’t see much incentive for Trump to mix it up with candidates far below him in the polls.

“Why would he elevate the likes of ‘Ada’ Hutchinson?” a top aide said, using the misnomer Trump deploys for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

There is another consideration: RNC rules require debate participants to pledge to support the party’s nominee in the general election. Trump ultimately agreed to do that in 2016 and then backtracked. He has long held open the threat that he wouldn’t endorse a candidate who defeated him for the nomination.

Some of the other candidates, including Hutchinson, former Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have either said they wouldn’t back Trump or criticized the loyalty oath.

Christie called the pledge a “useless idea” in an interview this month on CNN, arguing that Republicans should be willing to support their nominee without turning it into a blood oath.

“It’s only the era of Donald Trump that you need somebody to sign something on a pledge,” Christie said. “So I think it’s a bad idea.”

But it isn’t clear they will surpass the donor and polling thresholds the RNC has set for candidates to earn spots on the stage. Candidates must sign pledges only after they have qualified for debates, said a person familiar with the rules.

What matters most for Trump and his rivals, though, is what voters think about his participation — or absence. Interviews in New Hampshire, which holds the second nominating contest and the first primary in the country, suggest there are mixed views among Trump’s supporters and detractors.

“I’m not concerned about him not debating,” Matt Poulin, an insurance company owner and Trump fan from Bow, said in Concord on Tuesday. “I would like to see him debate, and he has a lot of good information, and he’s getting better at it.”

Carla Gericke, a leader of the libertarian-minded Free State Project, said it’s up to Trump.

“Trump has an advantage in the sense that he has been president. People know what his track record is, and they know he can put up a good show,” said Gericke, an undecided GOP primary voter 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 the Republican voters — are entitled to see that head-to-head sort of thing,” said Scott Maltzie, a Concord-area Republican primary voter who backed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in 2016 and says DeSantis is his first choice now.

“I mean, he’s kind of going in there assuming that he’s got this nomination locked up,” Maltzie said of Trump. “Well, the Republican Party’s not about coronations. We’re about making people prove what they stand for, and he’s got a lot of questions that he needs to answer for, and a debate stage could be a perfect place to do that.”

But Bob Beckett, who passed out business cards identifying himself as a GOP primary voter in the first-in-the-nation state, said after the DeSantis event in Hollis that he’d prefer not to see Trump on the debate stage.

“I think he’d be a distraction,” said Beckett, who voted for Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary and is leaning toward Christie this time. “Trump’s not a policy guy.”


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