In fact, when his rivals gather at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for the second debate on Wednesday, the question will be whether the event on Fox Business and Univision can match last month’s figures for the first gathering: a higher-than-expected 12.8 million viewers.
“I think there’s people who are open minded and they’re paying a lot of attention, and they care about the direction of this country and they’re worried about it,” Perino told Deadline.
“I think that the national level of anxiety is very high, in particular on a couple of issues,” Perino added, citing the economy, polarization and the general direction of the country.
Seven candidates qualified for the debate: North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
Trump again is planning a bit of counter-programming, reportedly with a speech in Detroit to union members as the United Auto Workers continue its strike.
Trump did a similar bit of counter-programming last month, when he appeared an interview on X/Twitter with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, as the network was presenting the first hour of the Milwaukee debate. It was a clear jab at Fox, which Trump frequently bashes. On Monday during a speech, he said, falsely, that “the last debate was the lowest-rated debate in history. That’s a good compliment, isn’t it?”
Then Trump claimed that 271 million people were listening to the Carlson interview. But that figure is of Twitter views, a figure that represents the number of times a post shows up in users timelines, not the number of times it has been watched. As Trump went on boasting, Fox News cut away from Trump’s speech at that point.
Perino said that she did not speak to Trump or members of his team about participating in the debate. That’s a contrast to the first debate, in which co-moderator Bret Baier said that he talked to the former president about it, and Fox executives also met with him to discuss his participation.
That said, Perino believes it would be to Trump’s advantage to take the debate stage.
“I think that his strength in 2015 and 2016 really grew by leaps and bounds the more he debated,” Perino said. “Perhaps he’s made the decision that he doesn’t need to do that anymore. But there is a hunger among the electorate to say, ‘Well what do any of these candidates really want to do over the next four years? What is the vision, what is the path they are going to put this country on?’ And I think they he would certainly benefit from that. I have no doubt in my mind he would do well in a debate. But he has decided not to, and so we move on without him.”
Perhaps the most revealing moment of the first debate was when Baier asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support Trump even if he was convicted in any of his four criminal cases. All but two candidates — Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson– raised their hands. Hutchinson did not qualify for this debate.
Perino suggested that the upcoming debate will also feature provocative questions, “but I don’t think we’ll have that question.” Before the last debate, some commentators, including so-called never-Trump conservatives, called for the moderators to ask whether they believe that Biden was legitimately elected, as Trump continues to falsely claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.
“I certainly think we was legitimately elected, so I don’t know if I would ask that of these candidates at this stage,” Perino said. “Joe Biden is obviously the president.”
Although Haley and Ramaswamy drew some of the biggest attention in the last debate, and showed some movement in the polls, not much has changed in the overall dynamics of the race, with Trump still far ahead of any rivals.
“They all know that Trump has a commanding lead, but, in our system, you vote first in Iowa, then in New Hampshire and then in South Carolina,” Perino said. “That’s our nominating process. And they believe that they have a shot. Now some people might say, ‘They’re crazy.’ And they might be, but if you look at some of the content on the ground … you see how many Republican voters are saying, ‘Look, I’m open minded. I want a different choice. I think it is time we look at some of these other candidates.’”
The debate, which will be simulcast on Fox News and streamed on Fox Nation and Rumble, will have a format similar to the last one. One difference: There will be no closing statements, as well as opening statements, “so we have more time to get to the meat of the questions,” she said. The site of the in-person audience at the Reagan Library also will be much smaller than the Fiserv Arena in Milwaukee, where Baier at one point had to tell the audience to try to refrain from their outbursts.
Some of the candidates also may take a little bit more of an aggressive posture from some of them so that they can have a breakout moment,” Perino said.
Perino added, “Can you imagine if you were somebody who was supporting them, saying, ‘You have been in the single digits for months.” And that’s kind of understandable, right? They are getting going. They are introducing themselves to the American public. But now at the time of the second debate, it’s time to show you’ve got some legs to run on.”