‘I wish he were here’: Ronna McDaniel talks Trump on the eve of first GOP primary debate

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Former President Donald Trump’s shadow is already looming over the first Republican presidential debate Wednesday.

But Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel wants the night to be about issues, not the elephant in the room.

“I really do hope that it’s a policy-driven debate, and that these candidates have a chance to show who they are and what they stand for on huge issues that we have facing our country,” McDaniel told POLITICO in an interview on the eve of the most highly anticipated event of the campaign so far.

The stage for Wednesday’s debate in Milwaukee is set. Eight candidates met the RNC’s strict requirements to earn a podium, though Trump, the current frontrunner, has said he won’t show up. McDaniel, who has publicly and privately implored the former president to make an appearance, wishes that weren’t the case.

“I think it’s important that we talk to the American people, and I believe the general election starts now, as we contrast our party with Joe Biden even while we’re competing to receive that nomination for our primary,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel was unwilling to say whether Trump’s snub amounted to his hiding from the media, calling the move a “calculus” by his campaign, given his wide lead in the polls.

Though there were calls from one RNC member to require all qualified participants to debate in order to be eligible for the nomination, it’s too late to change the rules to force Trump’s hand.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” McDaniel said, adding that it could be something RNC members discuss down the road.

“We’ve had candidates skip debates. That can be part of their strategy,” McDaniel said.

For now, the RNC chair has her hands full with challenges from candidates who didn’t qualify to be onstage Wednesday at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Long-shot Republican hopefuls Perry Johnson, Will Hurd and Francis Suarez — who all were on the cusp of hitting the debate polling thresholds — found out late Monday night that the show would go on without them. Larry Elder, who was farther from threshold than the other three candidates, was also left off the list. Elder and Johnson are now threatening legal action against the RNC.

McDaniel isn’t worried about the legal threats.

“I have nothing against all four of these candidates. They are far better than Joe Biden,” McDaniel said. “But the rules are the rules. We were very clear about it. We applied them equally to every candidate. And unfortunately, they fell short for this debate.”

Hurd, a former Texas Congressmember, voiced frustration during an interview with POLITICO about the polling demands and criticized the RNC’s decision not to explicitly specify which polls would count toward debate qualification.

But McDaniel shot down that criticism.

“We put forth metrics that we felt would create good polling,” she said.

“I don’t think many people woke up today surprised that these four candidates didn’t make the stage,” McDaniel added later. “And I hope they do well, but you got to say, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten in as late as I did. Maybe I should have gotten in earlier. I would have had a longer runway to get the polling that I needed.’ I mean, it’s not easy when you have zero name ID to get to 1 percent in three national polls.”