Nikki Haley challenges Donald Trump to debate. Trump is challenging Joe Biden to debate. And Biden is laughing at Trump, at least publicly.
But there are real doubts about whether any of them will face off on stage this year.
Biden’s re-election campaign has repeatedly refused to commit to joining debates with Trump, his likely opponent in November’s general election. Trump, meanwhile, has fallen out with the Republican National Committee and refused to join its primary debates. In 2020, he opposed the rules of the nonpartisan commission that has organized general election debates since 1976.
While any dispute could be resolved by the fall, the uncertainty reflects how both Biden and Trump are increasingly choosing to reach voters in settings they control at the expense of nonpartisan interviews or events where they could face hostile questions. Both Biden, 81, and Trump, 77, have at times confused names and countries and face widespread doubts from voters about their age and preparation.
There is also lingering animosity over how their debates went four years ago.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a longtime Biden confidant, noted that he was in the room at the chaotic September 2020 debate when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.
Coons lowered his voice to a whisper: “That was bad.”
He then questioned whether it would be worth holding an election debate this year.
“It’s hard to imagine, given that the Republican Committee and the Trump campaign have said they will have nothing to do with the Commission on Presidential Debates, and given their past conduct, it’s hard to imagine it being productive,” Coons said. “But ultimately this is President Biden’s decision.”
The debates are not mandatory, but are considered a traditional test for candidates where they do not have aids or teleprompters. The first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, but it did not become a recurring event until 1976, when the League of Women Voters began sponsoring presidential debates. They are now sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit organization established in 1987 that outlines the rules for each debate and selects the location, dates and moderators.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the commission, says it is too early to completely rule out the prospect of debates in 2024.
“There’s a history of candidates being unhappy,” he said. “Despite that, it has been a part of American culture since 1976. There is no doubt that the American people expect men and women who want to be president of the United States to appear on stage and answer questions and debate.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory council, also said Biden and Trump should debate.
“It’s about democracy,” Khanna said of the debates. “And it’s important for the American people to understand the different visions of the candidates. Absolutely, the president should debate in the three traditional fall debates, and Donald Trump should debate and not be afraid of that.”
While many political observers expect a rematch between Biden and Trump, Haley is still trying to get the former president’s attention in the Republican primary. The former UN ambassador has challenged Trump to “man up” for what she calls the “ultimate test of mental competency,” referring to the screening for early dementia and other cognitive disorders she took while in the White House. In her campaign, someone dressed in an inflatable chicken costume showed up at events with a sign that read, “Trump is too chicken to debate.”
But the Republican National Committee stopped scheduling primary debates after the fourth debate in Alabama in December. The last face-to-face debate between Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was hosted by CNN on January 10 in Iowa.
Trump is pressuring Haley to drop out of the primary and mocking Biden instead. He asked Biden to start debating now “for the good of the country” even though the general election is eight months away.
“I would like to debate it now because we should debate. We should debate for the good of the country,” Trump said last week on The Dan Bongino Show, claiming that Biden “can’t do it because he can’t talk.” “.
In response, Biden laughed and said, “If I were him, he’d want to debate me, too. He’s got nothing else to do.”
Biden’s staff has repeatedly refused to commit to participating in the debates. Her campaign visited Alabama before the final GOP primary debate to hold a news conference. Asked then whether Biden himself would debate in the fall, deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said officials would “look at the calendar.”
“We’ll have those conversations,” Fulks said. “But right now,” Fulks added, “our goal is to make sure we continue to build a campaign and infrastructure that can be competitive in 2024.”
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the Republican nominee in 2012 and participated in three debates against President Barack Obama, said “of course” Trump and Biden should debate.
“This is a democracy in the United States of America. We need to listen to the people who want to be president and see if they have the mental capacity and see what their positions are on the issues,” Romney said. “It’s one thing to say you passed a competency test. But it’s another thing for the American people to hear your debate. I want to hear from both President Biden and President Trump.”
Romney dismissed Trump’s vendetta against the debate commission, as well as the Biden campaign’s evasive position on the debates, as “excuses.”
“People always find excuses for not wanting to debate,” Romney said. “But there are a couple of old guys who don’t want people to see their age.”
There is at least one example, albeit in a key state and not a national election, of a Democrat skipping debates and winning elections anyway.
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs refused to debate Republican Kari Lake in 2022, arguing that Lake, a former television news anchor known for her polished screen presence, had spread falsehoods about the election and her staff labeled Lake a “conspiracy theorist.” “Anyway, Hobbs won a close race.
In addition to his rallies where he speaks to cheering supporters, sometimes for two hours straight, Trump has also tried to seek out viral moments: visiting a fraternity before a college football game, going to a sports bar and frequenting arts. mixed martial arts events.
Biden, meanwhile, has held fewer large rallies and instead focused on small events, such as recent stops at a boba tea shop and a family’s kitchen. Her team maintains that is more effective in a changed media landscape because TikTok videos and Instagram stories from those events reach more voters than TV ads and speeches.
Patrick Stewart is a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and wrote a book titled “The Audience Decides: Applause, Cheers, Laughter, and Boos During the Debates in the Trump Era.” He said the debates are perhaps even more necessary in the era of deepfakes, where artificial intelligence generates manipulated videos or digital representations.
“I trust my eyes if I can go ahead and see it in real time,” Stewart said. “That’s why they’re so important, because viewers can make their own decisions by watching the candidates.”
But Jacob Thompson, 29, a firefighter and police officer from Knoxville, Tennessee, who recently visited a Trump rally in Las Vegas, said Trump doesn’t really need to debate anymore because voters are familiar with his views and platform. .
“We all know the real Donald Trump. And we are all very proud of him,” he said. “People get offended by the things he says. And there are a lot of things he says that he wishes he hadn’t said. However, I base my opinion on what he has done.”
Gómez Licón reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Darlene Superville in Las Vegas and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.