Trump’s VP contenders jockey for primacy after first debate

Donald Trump’s top vice presidential contenders are using his contentious first debate with President Biden to jockey for primacy as the former president prepares to pick his running mate.

Vice presidential prospects like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) and Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) — considered the top three contenders — flocked to Atlanta to support the former president and praise his performance on the debate stage against Biden.

“The ones that wall-flower aren’t going to get picked. This is the moment. This is a key moment for them,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said of Trump’s would-be running mates. “It’s a real test on whether they rise to the occasion and they defend Trump, and go on the attack.”

In an email to supporters before the debate, Trump teased that his future running mate “could be there, but you’ll never know.”

The top candidates heaped compliments on the former president’s Thursday night showing, while largely skirting questions about the “veepstakes.”

“He’s winning — he can win this election by himself, so he’s got the luxury of picking someone who can help him govern, and that’s gonna lead to a good choice,” Burgum told Fox News.

Burgum, who ran against Trump in the Republican primary earlier this cycle, called the debate a “knockout” and lauded Trump’s showing as “so strong.”

“Whoever he picks for vice president, he’s the guy at the top of the ticket, and he’s the guy that we need to govern this country more effectively,” Vance told NBC News, touting Trump’s “high-energy” performance while noting that he has not been asked to take on the running mate role. Once a vocal Trump critic, Vance said his move to publicly support the campaign was part of a push “to elect better people” in Washington “whatever happens in the veepstakes.”

On CNN, Rubio parried questions about the more than 30 false claims Trump made during the 90-minute program, as tallied by the network’s fact-checking tracker, while saying the job hasn’t been offered to him. Rubio ran against Trump for the White House in 2016.

“I am not the vice presidential choice. No one is right now. And we’ll cross bridges when we get to them. Tonight is about the debate,” Rubio said in the spin room, noting that “we’ll know who it is at some point in the next two weeks.”

Trump said he has already made his pick, and he has teased that he’ll end the suspense during the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee next month.

Several other Republicans have also received vetting materials from the Trump campaign, according to CBS News reporting, including Sens. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), Reps. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Byron Donalds (Fla.), and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

Asked if his choice knows they’ve made the cut, Trump said last week that “nobody knows.”

Some strategists suggest that while a flattering showing from the potential running mates might not be enough to boost their chances, a bad performance could doom them and prompt the former president to change his mind.

“Trump has said he’s made the decision. He can make a different decision based upon performance, the performance art of these potential picks,” Bonjean said. “It could be a photo-finish if he was set on one candidate, but [if] Marco Rubio really makes a good impression on him because of his on-air ferocity, he might change his mind. You never know.”

Ambitious Republicans might also be auditioning for other top positions in a potential second Trump administration, even if they don’t have a shot at the second-in-command slot.

“Even for the runner-ups in the VP sweepstakes tonight, there are opportunities for Cabinet positions,” GOP strategist Brian Seitchik said. “You know, if Marco Rubio is not chosen for VP, he certainly would be considered, likely be considered for Secretary of State. Doug Burgum would seemingly be a great fit for Secretary of Energy.”

The roughly two-week stretch between the debate and the kickoff of the GOP convention is set to be a critical window for those hoping to stay in Trump’s favor. On July 11, just days before the Republican National Convention begins July 15, Trump is scheduled for sentencing in his Manhattan hush money case, in which a jury found him guilty of falsifying business records last month.

That, too, will be a test of whether a potential running mate would be willing to go to the mat for Trump, who faces the possibility of prison time.

The Republican National Committee has reportedly been making plans in case the former president can’t get to Milwaukee, though the party chair said Thursday that they “fully expect” he’ll be able to be there even after sentencing.

The loyalty test is particularly important for the Republican ticket because, experts predict, a running mate might not make that much of a difference in swaying an electorate already largely decided on the presidential race.

Burgum is a traditional conservative with deep pockets, while Vance is seen as a star in the America First movement. Rubio could help appeal to more moderate Republicans and pitch his foreign policy bona fides as an advantage. But Trump himself has downplayed the importance of a vice presidential pick, even as he draws out the public announcement.

“Trump’s very unpredictable,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said. “The question is going to be: What do they think they need? And right now, I think they want a governing choice. I think they want a partner. I don’t think they ‘need’ anything.”

Rumors had swirled that he might pick a woman, like Stefanik, to help him reach suburban female voters, or a Black man like Scott or Donalds to help him with voters of color.

Those figures also took to the airwaves and fired out posts on social platform X in the aftermath of the Trump-Biden showdown that has since sparked Democratic panic over the incumbent’s performance.

Ahead of the program, Donalds talked to CBS News about Black men turning away from the Democratic Party, arguing that a notable sector is “going Donald Trump.”

Scott, who was also a Trump rival in the 2024 GOP primary before dropping out and becoming a prominent surrogate, got a shoutout from Trump during the debate. Scott shared campaign fundraising links on X and posted about work he and Trump did together.

Seitchik said after the debate that Biden’s performance, which has drawn scathing criticisms from his own party, has distracted from the “veepstakes” speculation and could give Trump more latitude to rethink his pick.

“I don’t think who Trump picks for VP is all that critical,” Seitchik said. “It certainly matters for them and their future, and possibly the future of the GOP — but at the end of the day, this is Donald J. Trump vs. Joe Biden, and then that’s really all that matters here.”

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