Republicans face a tough task in trying to craft rules for their presidential primary debates — and in particular, making sure they write the rules so that Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, who are running well behind in the polls, find a place on the stage.
The Republican National Committee has insisted on vetting all official debates in the run-up to the 2016 nomination battle, including approving the criteria that will determine who’s included. But with potentially close to two dozen candidates vying for spots, party officials are sure to ruffle feathers as they decide how to decide who makes it.
“Unless we really believe there is going to be a debate with 15 people, there is going to be a real controversy over where that line is drawn,” said Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann.” If you don’t think there are going to be 15, there is going to be a businessman, or a governor or a senator who is not on that list.”
Mr. Kaufmann added, “I would still rather have this headache then be where the Democrats are: planning Hillary’s throne for the coronation.”
The discussions are certain to be part of the RNC’s three-day spring meeting, which is kicking off Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz.
RNC members don’t expect the decision to be made at the meeting, but are hoping they can put the issue to bed sooner rather than later in order so that GOP contenders know where they need to stand to take part the RNC’s nine sanctioned debates.
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“It’s a work in progress,” said RNC spokesman Sean Spicer.
Some of the presidential hopefuls are slated to speak to the RNC — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Mrs. Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Huckabee are polling well and are likely to make the cut to get on the debate stages, but Mr. Santorum and Ms. Fiorina, who is scheduled to appear at welcome reception on Wednesday night, are at the back of the pack.
The prospect of Ms Fiorina, the only major announced woman candidate in the field, and Mr. Carson, the only black candidate, being shut out is worrisome to Republicans.
“It doesn’t play well into the Republican narrative if those people are not on the stage,” said Patrick Griffin, a GOP strategist with Purple Strategies. “The party needs to be reaching out to all kinds of constituencies.”
Mrs. Fiorina supporters and Mr. Carson’s camp say they are confident the former Hewlett Packard will be able to clear whatever threshold the RNC lays out.
“We are completely confident that Dr. Carson’s campaign and candidacy will ‘qualify’ him for the sanctioned debates,” said Doug Watts, a Carson spokesman.
“we believe that all serious candidates be included in the debates, regardless of their poll standing,” Mr. Watts said. “The Party must be as inclusive as possible in order to move this country forward.”
Some political observers expect the RNC will tailor the rules to ensure that Mrs. Fiorina and Mr. Carson are on the stage when the debate season kicks off in August in Ohio. Others express concern about some governors, including Ohio’s John Kasich and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, missing the cut, if they decide to run.
The RNC has announced nine sanctioned debates and left open the possibility of adding three more. Party officials are working with host news networks on establishing debate criteria, which traditionally requires candidates receive a certain percentage of support in presidential preference polls. There could be other criteria as well.
But the cold reality is some candidates will probably get snubbed.
In 2012, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer was left out of all of the debates, despite being an announced candidate. And former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was only allowed at two of the debates — though he left his mark, delivering one of he more memorable zingers of the debate season in saying his “next door neighbor’s dogs have created more shovel ready jobs then this current president.”
The debates can be a big equalizer for candidates who aren’t able to match the fundraising of the top tier, but who are able to provide a compelling story.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s performance during a debate in South Carolina in 2012 is credited with helping him win that state’s primary days later.
Heading into 2016, many say that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is banking on the debates to put his widely panned 2012 performances behind him, and that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sees the debates as key to reviving his presidential ambitions.
The RNC, while saying debates are important, wants to avoid a repeat of the 2012 experience when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the clear frontrunner, but was severely damaged by taking part in 19 debates against a weak field.
The last go-around, the largest debate had nine competitors. Debates this time could have as many as 20 candidates, depending on how the rules are drawn.
“I think 10 or 12 candidates just doesn’t afford those top tier candidates to really have time to really give anything other then sound byte answers to questions,” said Glenn McCall, a member of the Republican National Committee from South Carolina. “What I hear weekly probably from folks, voters, is they want to know what we are going to do and they definitely don’t want to see 10 or 15 candidates on the debate stage.”
Matt Strawn, former head of the Iowa GOP, said the bar should be low in the opening debates, requiring only officially declared candidates who at least register in the polls.
“The more the merrier,” he said,
But for later debates, he said, the threshold should be raised to help voters make choices among viable candidates.
“When the Iowa GOP co-hosted a December 2011 GOP debate with ABC news, we used as our threshold either a 5 percent national polling average or a 5 percent Iowa polling average for inclusion into the debate,” he said. “[Former Utah Gov. Jon] Huntsman was below 5 percent both nationally and in Iowa, so he was excluded. Santorum was below 5 percent nationally, but above 5 percent in Iowa, so he was included.”
Rob Gleason, Pennsylvania GOP chairman and debate committee member, said trying to figure out who is going to be included in the debates is a “pleasant problem” to have, and said his goal is a nomination process that produces a candidate who can win the White House. He downplayed the idea that there is much anxiety over Mrs. Fiorina and Mr. Carson failing to qualify for debates.
“The challenge for those people is to get in the game,” Mr. Gleason said. “I don’t think they would run unless they thought they could get into the game.”