Political strategist says candidates should ‘avoid talking about Trump’ in order to have their best debate

“I think you're better off to attack Biden, to talk about yourself to try to find that distinguishing remark that lets you get away from that traffic jam in there."
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Posted at 2:49 PM, Aug 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-22 15:50:21-04

MILWAUKEE — With just a day to go until the first Republican presidential debate, candidates are gearing up for what could be their make-or-break moment in front of a national audience.

Let’s go in-depth on debate strategy with a pair of political strategists.

The stakes will be incredibly high Wednesday night in Milwaukee as each candidate will only get about a minute to respond to each question. A political strategist says they’re best off avoiding attacks on former President Donald Trump and focusing on themselves.

A huge banner hangs outside Fiserv Forum, but Steven Olikara knows the stage inside will be crucial for Republican presidential candidates hoping to gain momentum.

"There's no do-overs, there's no second chances, every word needs to count,” he said. "You've got to hit it out of the park in that one moment."

Olikara has felt the pressure of seeking a breakout moment in a political debate as he took part in a U.S. Senate Primary Debate last year.

"It is important for candidates to draw a contrast,” he said. “That's not going to just happen by playing things safe. You've got to take some risks and you've got to draw contrast ideally on the policy with other candidates."

Olikara says candidates have to strike a delicate balance of coming prepared for questions but not sounding over-scripted.

"I think the key for preparing for a debate is getting to the root of what you're trying to convey,” he said.

Evan Zeppos is a political strategist who has helped several candidates prepare for debates in Wisconsin and Washington D.C. since the 1970s.

"My advice to a candidate, particularly those who are sort of stuck in the middle or stuck any the lower ends, I would avoid talking about Trump,” he said. “I think you're better off to attack Biden, to talk about yourself to try to find that distinguishing remark that lets you get away from that traffic jam in there. If you get into this Trump mess, the big winner is going to be Donald Trump no matter what you say about him."

Former President Trump has met the donor and polling requirements, but he’s vowed to skip the debate. That leaves at least eight others who will be on the stage.

“Who do you think has the most to gain and who has the most to lose Wednesday night?” reporter Ben Jordan asked.

"I think the most to gain are those who are at the bottom of the tier because no one knows who they are, no one knows really who Asa Hutchinson is, Nikki Haley is hardly breaking through, Tim Scott is hardly breaking through, Doug Burgham of North Dakota, the governor, people say, 'huh? Who's he?' I think they have the most to gain,” Zeppos replied. “The most to lose I think are Mike Pence, I think also Ron DeSantis and I think those two have significant challenges out there."

Olikara says if you break it down, each candidate will only get about 5 to 10 minutes to make their case.

"You've got to think economy and efficiency here,” he said. "You've got to find your moments and find those key issues that are core to what you're running on."