TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – As Republicans gather Wednesday for the fourth GOP presidential nomination debate, only four candidates will be on the stage.
It’s the smallest debate stage at this point in the Republican presidential primaries in over a generation, and it pales in comparison to the nine GOP White House hopefuls who crowded on stage at a nomination debate in December 2015, during the last time the party experienced a fierce battle for the nomination.
And that’s just fine with Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel.
‘I think it’s good because you’re having more time to hear from these candidates on the debate stage,’ McDaniel emphasized in a Fox News Digital interview.
McDaniel, interviewed on the eve of the fourth debate, said we ‘are having a stage that allows the voters to hear from legitimate candidates for president, and we don’t have people auditioning for book deals and media contracts and cabinet positions.’
‘They are running in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina and they’re going to have time to address the major issues that the voters care about,’ McDaniel added as she pointed to the four early voting states in the GOP nominating calendar.
The RNC can take credit for the shrinking stage, as its rising debate polling and donor qualifying thresholds contributed to the rapid winnowing of a field that once numbered over a dozen contenders.
The criteria have been heavily criticized by the now-former candidates who were excluded from the stage.
‘The RNC’s clubhouse debate requirements are nationalizing the primary process and taking the power of democracy away from the engaged, thoughtful citizens of Iowa and New Hampshire,’ North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum charged as he dropped out of the race on Monday.
Burgum, who made the stage at the first two debates but failed to qualify for the third, argued that ‘the RNC’s mission is to win elections. It is not their mission to reduce competition and restrict fresh ideas by ‘narrowing the field’ months before the Iowa caucuses or the first in the nation New Hampshire primary.’
Asked about Burgum’s comments, McDaniel told Fox News ‘everybody knew the rules before they got in. They loved them when they were on the stage. They don’t like them when they’re not on the stage.’
But she added: ‘I have the greatest respect for Gov. Burgum. He would have been a much better president than Joe Biden. I feel that way about all the candidates, whether they make the stage or not. But we do have to have criteria….We don’t want 12 people on the stage like we had in 2016 going into Iowa where we still had two stages and the candidates were given very little time to actually address major issues.’
And defending the RNC’s criteria, she emphasized: ‘The threshold is not crazy. It’s six percent. You’re probably not going to win the presidency if you’re not pulling in at least six percent right now.’
Former President Donald Trump, the commanding front-runner for the Republican nomination as he makes his third straight White House run, is skipping his fourth straight debate. Trump and his 2024 campaign team have repeatedly called on the RNC to cancel the remaining debates.
McDaniel, asked to respond to Trump’s comments, pointed to the Democrats’ nominating process, where the national and state parties are rallying around President Biden as he seeks a second term in the White House. The Democratic National Committee is not sanctioning debates between Biden and his long-shot rivals – and Florida Democrats last week kept those rival candidates off their primary ballot.
‘We’re watching what the Democrats are doing. They’re not putting other candidates on the ballot. They’re not having debates. They’re not letting their primary process play out. And it’s making Democrat voters upset,’ McDaniel argued.
‘So we’re letting the process play out. It’s in the hands of the voters,’ she added, in a comment which some Republicans would vehemently disagree.
Asked if she can work with Trump if he wins the nomination, McDaniel said: ‘Absolutely. I’m going to work with the nominee. I have a great relationship with President Trump. I have a great relationship with these candidates and anybody who we nominate to beat Joe Biden, I’m going to be 100% behind.’
The immediate question facing the RNC is whether they’ll continue to host nominating debates, with the next two expected to be held next month in Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of the caucuses and primary. The RNC could potentially decide to allow state parties to team up with media organizations to run any future debates.
Sources with knowledge of the national party committee’s thinking say the RNC is not expected to make any decision on upcoming debates until after Wednesday’s showdown at the University of Alabama.