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Republican presidential candidates avoid speaking on Trump at a party conference

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This coming week will be a big one for Republican politics. The first debate among the party's presidential candidates takes place on Wednesday. And also former President Donald Trump and his 18 co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case must report to a jail to be booked. Georgia Public Broadcasting Stephen Fowler's been following these developments and joins us now. Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: First, I hear you've been spending this weekend listening to Republican candidates speak at a conference there in Atlanta hosted by conservative radio host Erick Erickson. What's that been like?

FOWLER: Yeah, so it's called the Gathering, and it saw six Republican presidential candidates speak over the course of two days. Donald Trump was not one of them. He wasn't invited. The theme was "Forward: Which Way," which is appropriate as the party and the country finds themselves at a political crossroads. So for 48 hours in a hotel ballroom in Atlanta, a group of conservatives contemplated that question in a sort of alternate reality where Trump wasn't running for president and wasn't running away with the primary polling. Now, Erickson said at the beginning he wasn't going to ask the candidates about last week's racketeering indictments of Trump and 18 others because he knew what people would say and because he didn't want it to be another place for candidates to give rehearsed stump speeches. There were actually 45-minute conversations with these candidates that actually saw a lot of important information about where they stand on everything from the border to education to foreign policy in China.

RASCOE: OK, so you said that the host, Erick Erickson, said he wasn't going to ask them about the indictments 'cause he knew what they were going to say. What were they going to say?

FOWLER: Well, to be fair, Ayesha, these are the fourth indictments in as many months, so there is certainly a level of felony fatigue. And in the Republican Party by this point, there aren't that many people that don't already have solid thoughts about the former president and his legal issues. Case in point - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis only indirectly mentioned Trump's focus on the 2020 election in the middle of a lot of discussion about DeSantis's vision for the presidency, arguing Republicans should be talking more about 2024 and contrast with President Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: There's nobody that wants us to be looking backwards more than the Democrats in the media. They would love to have us have to relitigate all this stuff from 2020, 2021, because what does that do? That lets Biden sit in his basement again, not have to answer questions or face scrutiny.

FOWLER: Now, on the other end of the spectrum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the only one to tackle indictments head on. Speaking to reporters after his speech, he says he used to support Trump, but Trump betrayed his supporters in the country on January 6 and calls him morally responsible for the attack on the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: So whether you believe in the criminal prosecutions or you don't - two things. One, they're real, and they're something politically we're going to have to deal with. And two, his conduct is reprehensible. It doesn't matter whether it's criminal or not.

FOWLER: Now, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp was also in high demand at the conference as someone who spoke out against Trump and didn't suffer electorally. He keeps being floated as a potential presidential candidate, despite saying he's not running. Kemp pulled out a pencil during his speech for a metaphor about controlling the government, basically saying Republicans needed to stop trying to rewrite the past so they can regain power and erase what Democrats in Washington are doing now.

RASCOE: So now on Wednesday, some of these same people are coming together again for the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, except Trump might not be there, right? What's up with that?

FOWLER: Well, there's potential layers to this going on with Trump potentially skipping the debate and instead doing an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. I mean, recent polling shows Trump with a commanding lead against literally everyone. So on the one hand, anyone not named Trump that'll be on the debate stage Wednesday could use this chance to break through to voters without necessarily going against him. But on the other hand, Ayesha, a primary debate without the runaway front-runner might not be a big draw.

RASCOE: You know, in the 30 seconds we have left, Trump and those 18 co-defendants indicted last week in Atlanta will have to turn themselves in some time next week. How does that work?

FOWLER: Yes, the DA gave a deadline of Friday at noon for everyone, including Trump, to surrender to the Fulton County Jail. That gives Trump a lot of leeway to pick and choose the best time for him to get a lot of media impact, like maybe Wednesday to overshadow the debate. But we'll have to see because everybody should be getting booked, including mug shots.

RASCOE: Well, we'll bring listeners those details when that happens. Reporter Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, thanks for joining us.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.