Jun 11, 2015 12:23 PM

Steinhauser: Debate over first GOP debate heats up

NH1 Political Director - NH1.com

CONCORD – The New Hampshire Union Leader says they’re still going to hold a presidential forum in the Granite State on the same night that Fox News hosts the first Republican presidential debate, even though Fox News has now said they’ll hold a candidate’s forum earlier in the day for the candidates who don’t make the cut for the GOP primetime showdown.

"Our plans haven’t changed, though I am eager to see just how Fox will structure its forum. The bottom line for us is doing what we can to protect the New Hampshire Primary,” Publisher Joseph McQuaid said Thursday morning in a statement to NH1 News.

Only 10 candidates will make the stage at the August 6 showdown in Cleveland (host city for next year’s Republican convention). With 10 candidates already declared and at least five more GOP White House hopefuls all but certain to announce, a bunch of contenders won’t make the cut. Fox News is using an average of national polling to determine who makes the stage.

Wednesday morning more some of the top Republicans in New Hampshire sent an open letter to Fox News and the Republican National Committee that strongly criticizes the move to limit the first GOP presidential debate to ten candidates.

“We urge you to reconsider the criteria and to design a debate that will allow voters to hear from a more diverse and inclusive group of candidates who have filed to run for president,” read the letter, which was signed by nearly 60 prominent Republican lawmakers, former lawmakers, activists and officials in the Granite State.

While the letter acknowledged that a debate with 15 to 20 candidates on the stage would be unwieldy, the signers suggested that Fox News “divide the debate into two panels to appear back to back, either on the same night or consecutive nights.”

Wednesday evening McQauid proposed his forum for the candidates who don’t make the cut at the Fox debate.

"What Fox is attempting to do, and is actually bragging about doing, is a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary," McQuaid said. "Fox boasts that it will 'winnow' the field of candidates before New Hampshire gets to do so. That 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.”

A couple of hours later, Fox news announced it would give airtime to candidates who didn't make the cut, saying they will be invited to take part in a 90-minute forum to be aired hours before the primetime debate.

"Our intention has always been to provide coverage to the wide field of Republican candidates," said Fox News' Executive Vice President of News Editorial Michael Clemente.

Criteria to decide which candidates make the stage at the nine planned (with an option for three more) Republican presidential debates is left to the media partners that are hosting the showdowns. But the RNC has said they will severely penalize any candidates who take part in unsanctioned debates. There were more than 20 Republican presidential primary debates in the 2012 cycle, which many in the party saw as detrimental to the GOP and to eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

The question now is whether a forum hosted by the Union Leader would violate RNC rules. A source with knowledge of the Union Leader’s plans tells NH1 News that “to be clear, the Union Leader has not announced the format for the New Hampshire Presidential Forum.”

The source added that “McQuaid has spoken with presidential candidates and representatives for several campaigns who were concerned New Hampshire's role in the vetting process was threatened by FOX's initial decision to exclude candidates so early in the process based solely on name recognition in national polls.”

That’s a sentiment that was also expressed by some of the Republican signers to the letter to Fox News and the RNC.

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu told NH1 News "I just think it’s a bad move. In some ways it sets a ten week mini-primary, for folks trying to get enough polling to get on that stage.”

"To arbitrarily cut that down to a field of ten as opposed to finding some other means to making sure that all the viable candidates have a chance to get out there on the national scene, it just doesn’t seem like it’s the right time for that in August of 2015," Sununu added.

Some of the Republican presidential candidates who may not make the cut for the first debate have been critical of the criteria, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who was runner up to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who’s polling very low in national surveys, told NH1 News last week “here’s what I would say about national polling: Brad Pitt would probably be in the debate. I’m sure he’s a fine fellow. But at the end of the day what your testing is people who’ve run before or people who have certain celebrity status. For a candidate like me, I wouldn’t have a chance if it were Florida, New York or California.”

RNC: New format encourages more forums

Steve Duprey, one of the RNC's two committee members from New Hampshire, told NH1 News that by limiting the number of debates, "there will be significantly more candidate forums where instead of candidates talking in 30 second sound bites, they actively engage with voters here in New Hampshire on substantive matters with the in depth and direct questioning that New Hampshire is known for. These forums are a much better way of candidates engaging with voters and something I strongly support and encourage."

"This year we are blessed as a party to have the largest most qualified group seeking our nomination in modern history. I am confident that forums held in NH will play a critical role in helping candidates become better known and will give our lesser well known or not as well funded candidates a chance to become our nominee. New Hampshire is famous for giving these candidates a fair shot and forums will insure we continue that role," added Duprey, who chairs the RNC's committee on debates.


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