Fox News has changed its plan for the first Republican presidential debate to give second-tier candidates some airtime after a New Hampshire newspaper announced its own competing forum for B-list contenders.
According to plans announced late Wednesday, Fox now will host a 90-minute televised forum in Cleveland on the afternoon of August 6 for”‹ “‹Republican candidates who fail to qualify for that “‹evening’s 90-minute debate.
RNC officials and campaign staffers had been pressuring Fox for weeks to do exactly this, some even predicting that the vacuum would be filled by another media outlet. A Fox spokeswoman challenged the notion that Fox had changed its plans, saying the cable network always intended to cover the candidates who did not make the prime-time cut.
The announcement capped a chaotic three-hour stretch that began when the New Hampshire Union-Leader published a story announcing it would host a forum on August 6. Publisher Joe McQuaid was quoted in the story saying that the qualification criteria established by Fox for the first debate — that candidates must rank in the top 10 in an average of recent national polls — “isn’t just bad for New Hampshire; it’s bad for the presidential selection process by limiting the field to only the best-known few with the biggest bankrolls.”
But the newspaper, in throwing a lifeline to candidates who fail to qualify for the Fox debate, also seemed to be daring them to violate party rules and risk being excluded from all future forums. That’s because the Republican National Committee, aiming to bring order to what was an unwieldy process in 2012, established a rule for 2016 that says that any candidate who participates in a nonsanctioned debate will be ineligible to participate in any of the party’s sanctioned ones.
Based on the RNC’s definition of a “debate” — multiple persons on stage, answering questions from a moderator, in a televised event — it looked like the Union-Leader might be asking candidates to choose between getting airtime on August 6 and not getting any for the remainder of the primary season.
The Union-Leader story did not specify the format but confirmed that any candidate polling at or above 1 percent would be invited and that the event would be nationally televised by C-SPAN.
“It sounds like a debate to me,” Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire RNC committeeman, told National Journal when asked to comment on the Union-Leader announcement. Duprey, who chairs the RNC’s panel on debates, said he hadn’t seen the full details of the Union-Leader forum but would be reviewing them with other RNC officials soon.
“‹”‹Minutes later, Duprey called to say that he’d spoken with RNC spokesman and chief strategist Sean Spicer, who had been in touch with people at the Union-Leader. RNC officials had been given assurances, Duprey said, that the candidates would appear on stage one at a time. That specific provision — candidates giving individual speeches into the camera, rather than interacting with each other and a moderator — would allow the event to comply with RNC rules.
But shortly after “‹”‹National Journal published a story reporting that RNC officials had been given such assurances and felt confident the New Hampshire forum would comply with its rules, McQuaid emailed to say that wasn’t the case. “[Y]our report about our newspaper having only one candidate at a time is false,” McQuaid wrote. “Whoever fed you that is full of B.S.” Asked to clarify whether his forum would have multiple candidates on stage at the same time, McQuaid replied, “Yes.”
Fewer than 20 minutes later, Spicer, the right-hand man to Chairman Reince Priebus at the RNC, blasted out a statement from Fox announcing that the network had decided to hold its own “forum” on August 6. The event will be moderated by Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum — and, with multiple candidates on stage together, will function for all intents and purposes like a debate.
Asked whether he had, in fact, spoken with Union-Leader officials earlier in the day and received assurances about their forum, Spicer replied, “I don’t discuss the private conversations I have on debate matters.”
“‹It’s unclear whether Fox’s announcement will dissuade the Union-Leader from pressing on with its own forum. Asked by email to comment on the Fox forum, McQuaid did not respond.
The episode highlights the complicated — and highly sensitive — dilemma Republicans face in planning primary debates for 2016. The RNC, led by Spicer and Duprey, has for months been working with the networks to find some kind of solution to the problem of having upward of 15 candidates in the race and not enough room on a debate stage to accommodate them all. Duprey got himself into hot water last month when he told reporters in California, at the RNC spring meeting, that “there’s consensus to cap it between nine and 12.”
Spicer quickly walked that statement back, and Duprey followed suit. Both emphasized that the networks, not the party, are ultimately responsible for establishing the criteria for each individual debate. A few days later, Fox announced its criteria — which elicited angry responses from multiple campaigns.
“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,” said Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the 2012 GOP primary who, if the first debate were held today, would not qualify based on recent polling.
Santorum added: “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.”
One of the candidates who would qualify, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, has repeatedly criticized the Fox criteria and even wrote the RNC a letter urging the network to include everyone — even if it means forming two heats of debaters, as Santorum has suggested.
In fact, that’s what CNN announced it will do with the second debate, on September 16 in California. Those candidates polling in the top 10 will debate one another, followed by a separate debate of those candidates polling outside the top 10 but registering with at least 1 percent. This second-tier event is still considered part of the entire CNN debate and is thus sanctioned by the RNC.
In the end, after much criticism — and facing the threat of a competing event in New Hampshire — FOX followed CNN’s blueprint.