- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Republican National Committee’s push to limit the number of debates in the 2016 presidential primary could end up creating an arms race of sorts, with groups denied the chance to hold “official” debates instead hosting candidate forums that would serve much the same purpose.

Even as groups ponder how to handle the RNC’s new dictate, which will be formalized in the coming weeks, potential candidates say they’re open to participating in forums outside of the officially sanctioned debates, saying they are crucial to giving voters the chance to test their would-be nominees.

“Twenty-plus debates may have been a bit much last cycle, but I think it is critical that there are enough debates to ensure each prospective candidate has an opportunity to explain their vision for our nation and speak beyond just talking points, canned answers and TV ads,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum. “Just as I was last cycle, I am a supporter of substantive candidate forums. This is not something that traditional debates with 1-minute answers and 30-second rebuttals allow. Voters deserve to hear who the candidate is as a person, what they believe and the direction they hope to take our nation.”

Mr. Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proved the value of debates and forums in the 2012 primary, using the exposure to power Mr. Santorum to a win in Iowa’s caucuses and Mr. Gingrich to victory in South Carolina’s primary.

Some Republicans, especially in the party’s senior ranks, though, felt there were too many debates — intraparty clashes that diluted the party’s message and weakened eventual nominee Mitt Romney’s hand as he headed into the general election against President Obama.

The RNC is pushing to limit the number of debates.

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RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has met with several of the prospective candidates, who said they could accept the limit.

Debate dates have not been shared, though the RNC has said it expects to announce the list of sanctioned debates before the end of the year.

Sean Spicer, RNC spokesman, shrugged off the idea that a proliferation of nondebate “forums” would be a bad thing or get in the way of the party having a better handle on the nomination process.

“It is an apples-and-oranges comparison,” Mr. Spicer said. “The difference between ABC News, Fox and CNN hosting a debate and the Farm Bureau having a forum has not been in conflict.

“So we believe candidate forums and attempts by the grass roots to get to know and challenge these guys are very healthy and a key part of [the] nomination process,” he said.

Some RNC members said the challenge now will be for the party to figure out what constitutes an unsanctioned debate.

As it stands, the RNC plans to penalize candidates that participate in unsanctioned events by leaving them out of sanctioned ones.

Much of the RNC’s plan depends on the news networks’ decisions. If they elevate the forums to debate-like coverage, the calendar could end up being as cluttered as the 2012 GOP contest or the 2008 Democratic contest, which saw more than two dozen candidate debates in the primary.

“As much as the Republican Party, rightfully so, wants to control the debates, the reality is that the networks have the upper hand, because a lot of candidates will want to boost up their name ID and be in everybody’s living rooms,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “By trying to basically control the debate process, they could be giving rise to a new round of sideshows.”

The candidates themselves would also have an incentive to participate, particularly if the field shapes up to be as crowded as it appears right now.

“I don’t envy the RNC, but, ultimately, they cannot control every individual campaign,” said Keith Appell, a GOP strategist. “So if some of the candidates feel as [though] they’re being shut out, or if they feel they need more opportunities to spell out their visions, they may align in the purpose of scheduling other forums at which voters can see and hear them.”

Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire, said he does not expect any conflict between official debates and forums or television talk show appearances.

“We anticipate there will be dozens [of events], and candidates will choose which ones, when and where [to participate] that best advance their candidacies,” Mr. Duprey said. “So long as they don’t run afoul of our definition of a debate — which our committee and the full RNC have yet to finalize but in essence seeks only [to prevent] multiple candidates on the same stage at the same time — they are fine.

“We expect our media partners will cooperate in this, because it is in their interest as well to have some sense of order and to get wide viewership for their debates,” Mr. Duprey said. “In addition, we anticipate that a range of sanctions available to the committee that could be imposed on either candidates or media organizations will prove helpful in obtaining compliance.”

Will Rogers, chairman of the GOP in Polk County, Iowa, said that he thinks additional forums would be a good thing because they may provide voters with more of a substantive look at the candidates.

“Quite honestly, the way the debates have been run in the past, when you have six or seven candidates on stage, and you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or [ask them] to put their hands up [in response to a question], I think it really cheapens the discussion,” Mr. Rogers said “I think it would be better if candidates have the chance to stand before people and do a town hall forum.

“Make the questions serious so people have to get an answer,” Mr. Rogers said. “I think that is very helpful.”

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