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Jan 16, 2015 11:46 PM

GOP field scrambles as RNC sets debate plan

The Associated Press

CORONADO, Calif. (AP) As the leading GOP prospects for the White House ramp up their national outreach, Republicans unveiled plans Friday for a primary season aimed at keeping the nominee unscathed and ready to take on the Democratic candidate heading toward Election Day.

Said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, "We're not going to have a circus."

However, buzz that 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney was considering a third campaign built throughout the RNC's three-day meeting, culminating in his public confirmation of that during the closing banquet Friday.

"I'm giving some serious consideration to the future," Romney told more than 200 party activists, leaders and former aides.

With his wife, Ann, at his side, Romney said: "The most frequently asked question I get is, 'What does Ann think of all this?' She believes that people get better with experience, and heaven knows I have experience running for president."

The RNC also approved plans Friday to cut the number of presidential primary debates in half compared with 2012, while seeking to introduce what a spokesman called "an element of conservatism" to those asking the questions. The first of nine scheduled debates is set for Ohio in August, with the criteria for participation still to be resolved. Roughly 25 Republicans are weighing presidential bids.

The changes are intended to give the GOP's next presidential nominee an easier path to the White House, two years after Romney emerged from an extended primary contest bruised and low on campaign cash.

"Keep in mind, 2016 could be a do-or-die moment for our party," said Priebus, who was elected to a record third term as RNC chief. "For almost everything we do, we have to ask ourselves, 'Is this helping us win the White House?'"

The former head of the Wisconsin Republican Party was clearly already in campaign mode: "We've been preparing for a long, long time, and we're ready for Hillary."

That would be Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who is widely seen by Republicans as the Democratic candidate they'll most likely face in 2016.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, expected to launch his second presidential campaign bid in the coming months, appeared before RNC members later Friday, following Thursday appearances from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Sounding very much the candidate, Perry called for strong global leadership, even as the focus of the early race had turned to Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Perry sought the 2012 Republican nomination but flamed out after failing to meet high expectations, in part by performing poorly during some of the primary campaign debates.

"We are experiencing a crisis of competence in Washington and the people know it," Perry told the RNC's Friday luncheon crowd at a seaside resort near San Diego. "America is looking for a new path forward and, starting today, let's give it to them."

In an interview later with The Associated Press, Perry acknowledged he's been preparing for another presidential run. "Preparation's done. I'm ready," he said. "But I will announce at the appropriate time my intentions."

Several would-be candidates not in attendance dispatched aides and volunteers to help court RNC activists at the meeting. Bush, meanwhile, began phoning leading officials in New Hampshire this week, with similar calls planned for Iowa the first and second states on the presidential nominating calendar.

Ted Gatsas, the Republican mayor of New Hampshire's largest city, Manchester, received a call from Bush on Thursday. Regarding Romney, Gatsas said, "Certainly I would say I welcome him to the field, and I think he probably knows New Hampshire."

Romney's team suggests he will make a decision about the 2016 campaign soon, out of fairness to the other candidates contemplating bids and to former allies who had begun to move on. GOP officials, including former supporters, said he won't have anything handed to him if he makes a third run.

"While I have a lot of respect for Gov. Romney, and you know I think he is eminently qualified to serve as president, I think there's going to have to be a vetting process in New Hampshire again," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a major Romney supporter in 2012 who was among those on Bush's recent call list.

"I want to know what's his vision for the country, just like I'm going to want to know from every candidate, so I think this field is wide open still," she said.

Also Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attended the inauguration of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Christie told reporters he was attending private meetings before heading home but didn't feel any pressure to speed up his 2016 timeline because of Romney and Bush.

"The fact is we all have our own ways of making these decisions," Christie said. "The entry or withdrawal of any particular candidate is not going to make any difference in terms of my timeline. I'll make my decision the way I want to make it and then let people know after I've made it."


Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.


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