By Catherine Yang
Just 10 miles from the county jail where former President Donald Trump needs to surrender by next Friday over racketeering charges brought in Fulton County, Georgia, over his contesting the results of the 2020 election results, most of his rivals for the GOP nomination will be vying for favor at The Gathering.
The event is one that conservative radio host Erick Erickson hosts annually, and this Friday and Saturday he will interview former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Sen. Tim Scott, and others.
The candidates will have the opportunity to promote their platforms in a session with Mr. Erickson, who wants to focus on their “visions for the future.” Issues will include artificial intelligence, U.S.-China relations, ESG, “how to restrain government,” and “the rise of Christian nationalism.” They may also appear on other panels throughout the two-day conference.
Mr. Erickson, in welcoming remarks on Friday, noted that President Trump would not be in attendance, and that was by design.
“This is our time to come together and hear from people whey they’re running for office, why should we vote for you … what’s your vision,” he said.
Not long after, on X (previously Twitter), he posted that “reporters are already mad because I said I don’t intent (sic) to ask the candidates about Trump.”
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he had said the GOP frontrunner likely wouldn’t have accepted anyway, and given the location “at this point, Trump couldn’t come because the DA might arrest him.”
Leading in Polls
In the polls, President Trump has continued to maintain a double-digit lead over the rest of the campaigning candidates, which has only grown over the course of the year despite, and in some cases directly after, his many legal challenges.
Friday’s average gave him a nearly 40-point lead, at 54.7 percent average in the polls, over runner-up Gov. DeSantis with 14.8 percent and Mr. Ramaswamy at 6.9 percent, who has recently been rising in more targeted polls.
To that end, President Trump has repeatedly sidestepped making a commitment to appear in the first Republican National Committee debate on Aug. 23.
“Many people are asking whether or not I will be doing the DEBATES?” he wrote on Truth Social on Thursday. “ALL AMERICANS have been clamoring for a President of extremely High Intelligence. As everyone is aware, my Poll numbers, over a ‘wonderful’ field of Republican candidates, are extraordinary. In fact, I am leading the runner up, whoever that may now be, by more than 50 Points. Reagan didn’t do it, and neither did others. People know my Record, one of the BEST EVER, so why would I Debate? I’M YOUR MAN. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
He previously also suggested viewing the debates as an audition for the vice president role.
Fox News, which is hosting the debate, appears to have been encouraging President Trump to attend.
“Thinking of the big debate coming up, and I’m not saying this to sell the debate, it’s a great debate and would be great if the president and all the candidates could make it, but if you’re Donald Trump and this is all everyone is talking about and you own all the oxygen in the room, wouldn’t you want to be in that room?” Fox News host Neil Cavuto said during his 4 p.m. show “Your World” on Thursday.
Earlier, another Fox News host, Piers Morgan, challenged President Trump, telling him to “show us what you’re made of.”
President Trump is the main crowd puller, given his large audience turnout at rallies across the country, and his absence would be a significant ratings dampener for the network. He has not yet given a clear indication about his decision.
“I haven’t totally made a decision. I like the debates. I might be here because of the debates. I might have won against Hillary Clinton with the debates, and I might have gotten the nomination because of the debates,” President Trump said in a Breitbart interview published Aug. 2.
Analysts and multiple media reports have pointed out that even without attending, President Trump may be a notable presence in the debates; candidates are likely to be asked about him, and even if not, their answers will likely take him into context.
The Trump question raised at Mr. Erickson’s The Gathering event was likewise a factor in Iowa earlier this summer, when GOP candidates made several appearances with the governor and attended a Christian summit where President Trump was notably absent.
When he last week made a surprise drop in at the Iowa State Fair, all eyes were on President Trump, and media reports on the campaigning highlighted the vast turnout he received compared to Gov. DeSantis, and others, at the same event.
Naveen Athrappully contributed to this report.