WASHINGTON - For the first time in more than three years, President Donald Trump will not be at the center of the nation's biggest political showdown.
Many Republicans hope it stays that way.
As 10 Democrats climb on stage Wednesday for the first presidential debate of the 2020 election, Trump will be half a world way, en route to the annual G-20 summit in Japan. When a second group of Democrats debate a day later, the president will be meeting with world leaders to discuss thorny issues such as Iran, North Korea and global trade.
Republican strategists say the timing offers Trump a rare opportunity to rise above the fray of national politics as Democrats battle with each other and court the party's liberal base voters. But those strategists also predict that Trump - who has already toyed with the idea of live-tweeting his reaction to the debates - will be unable to resist the temptation to weigh in.
"He's going to directly engage the Democrats and even call out some of them individually," said Kevin Madden, a GOP consultant. "Trump will be a bigger part of that stage than any one of the individual candidates and that's exactly how he wants it."
Will Trump attack?
The Miami debates, broadcast both nights at 9 p.m. EDT, will momentarily snap the nation's attention to the crowded field of Democrats vying to take on Trump next year. But the president's record and combative style will hang over the discussion, and his campaign apparatus has been gearing up to counter Democratic broadsides.
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The question is whether Trump will add his voice to that effort.
"President Trump will likely watch many of these debates and declare winners and losers among the Democratic primary contenders," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist with close ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill. "He isn't going to allow any of the candidate's popularity rise without putting his branding on them."
The first debate will feature candidates such as Sen. Cory Booker, who Trump has claimed "ran Newark, New Jersey, into the ground" as a former mayor of that city. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who will also be on stage, has been blasted by Trump for claiming Native American heritage. The president has accused New York City Mayor and candidate Bill de Blasio of being responsible for high taxes and crime in New York.
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Poll: What do Democrats want to hear about at the debates? (Hint: It's not Trump.)
Trump told Fox News last week he is considering tweeting during the debates. White House aides did not respond to questions about whether the president will watch the debates.
"I wasn't thinking about it, but maybe I will now," Trump told Fox News when asked if he will react in real time. "Instead of fake news, I'll make them correct news. And that's OK."
Trump backed off in '16
Trump was a prolific tweeter during the first Democratic debate in 2016, posting nearly two dozen messages, many of them with a "#DemDebate" hashtag. At one point he said immigration was receiving more attention from candidates than veterans. He polled his followers for who was winning. He complained about the number of commercials.
"Everybody's talking about my doing twitter during the likely very boring debate tonight," he wrote hours before the October 2015 debate got underway.
But his strategy appeared to shift months later. Trump posted no tweets about the Democrats during their final four debates, which took place in the spring of 2016 - after he had placed second in the Iowa caucuses and won the New Hampshire primary.
For all the expected focus on Trump, Democratic voters told a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll that they want to hear about health care, immigration, the economy, climate change, education and taxes instead. Trump, including efforts to get him out of the White House, ranked eighth in priority for Democrats.
Fewer than 1% cited "election interference" as a top priority.
GOP, campaign gear up
The traditional approach past presidents have taken is to mostly avoid reacting to debates, instead allowing the candidates to beat each other up on national television. In instances where the president's record is attacked, the campaign or the national party would generally take the lead on countering.
"The president should let his campaign and the RNC handle real-time responses to the debate," said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. "He has very little influence on Democratic primary voters. When he attacks a candidate like (Joe) Biden, it forces Democrats to rally around his target."
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Republican aides said the RNC and the campaign are both gearing up to monitor pre- and post-debate commentary, blast emails to donors and journalists, and to place Trump supporters at "strategic locations" around the debates. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is set to travel to Miami, as are Trump campaign operatives.
Still, RNC and campaign aides didn't respond to questions about Trump's plans.
"The established approach of most incumbents is to avoid providing a field of opponents the attention they crave, choosing instead to ignore them and leave them to fight among themselves and bruise each other up," Madden said. "But Trump is not most incumbents, and he has zero interest in the established approach."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans want Donald Trump to ignore the Democratic debate fray. He's making no promises.