Rick Santorum Rips Fox News Over ‘Arbitrary’ Debate Rules

“The idea that a national poll has any relationship to the viability of a candidate—ask Rudy Giuliani that. Ask Phil Gramm that.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits in Nashville, Tennessee on April 10, 2015. 
National Journal
May 21, 2015, 1:07 p.m.

OKLAHOMA CITY—Rick Santorum on Thursday ripped Fox News’ newly-announced criteria for qualifying in the network’s Aug. 6 Republican presidential debate, calling the guidelines “arbitrary” and “not legitimate.”

His comments came less than 24 hours after Fox News announced it would limit participation to those GOP candidates who rank in the top 10 of five national polls in the months leading up to the debate in Cleveland.

If the first debate were held right now, under those rules, Santorum would be left out—a reality that was not lost on him when asked by National Journal about the situation after his speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference here.

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“I’m probably the best person to comment on this. In January of 2012 I was at 4 percent in the national polls, and I won the Iowa caucuses. I don’t know if I was last in the polls, but I was pretty close to last,” Santorum said. “And so the idea that a national poll has any relationship to the viability of a candidate—ask Rudy Giuliani that. Ask Phil Gramm that. You can go on down the list of folks who were doing real well in national polls and didn’t win a single state and were not a viable candidate.”

Based on the average of the past five national, methodologically-sound polls of the Republican field, Santorum would be left out of a debate held today—as would Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the field, Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American to run for president, and other experienced politicians such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Santorum said the GOP debates should be “inclusive” and welcome to all “legitimate” candidates.

“If you’re a United States senator, if you’re a governor, if you’re a woman who ran a Fortune 500 company, and you’re running a legitimate campaign for president, then you should have a right to be on stage with everybody else,” Santorum said. “So the idea that we’re going to arbitrarily—and it’s arbitrary, someone at 1.15 is in, someone at 1.14 is out—that to me is not a rational way.”

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Santorum, who started the 2012 race a rounding-error away from zero in the polls to finish as the runner-up to Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination, was particularly upset about the network’s decision to use national polls, “which is not legitimate, in my opinion, to determine viability of a candidate,” he said.

“It’s like saying ‘Is it hot outside? Well, let’s go inside and measure temperatures.’ That has nothing to do with how hot it is outside,” he said. You have to go to the place where the temperature matters, and it matters in the early primary states. “

Some of the later debates held in Iowa and New Hampshire will, in all likelihood, use statewide polling as part of its qualification criteria.

There are nine debates scheduled, with the possibility of three late-season debates being added later on. Only the first two—hosted by Fox News in August, and CNN in September—have released their qualification criteria. CNN also is using national polling as its standard, but has announced that it will hold a second-tier debate for candidates who finish outside of the top ten.

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Santorum pointed out that he has argued publicly for that latter approach, and sounded confident that Fox News will reconsider its decision.

“I’m hopeful that people will listen to the comments—I mean, I’m sure they put this out there to get comments,” he said. “And I’m not criticizing or condemning them. I’m really not. Hopefully they put it out there and they’re going to listen to what the comments are, and factor those in, and determine what is the right way.”

Santorum has a complicated history with Fox News. He was a contributor to the network prior to his 2012 run, but during that race he accused Fox of giving flattering coverage to his primary opponent, Romney.

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