SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Never have more than 10 candidates taken the stage for a televised Republican presidential debate. Wish the GOP luck in trying to keep it that way.
With the party’s first debate set for August, Republicans must decide to either allow what could become a nationally televised circus act, or figure out how to fairly whittle down a field likely to include eight current or former governors, four senators, two accomplished business executives and a renowned neurosurgeon.
More than a half-dozen contenders have already begun to lobby party officials for access in a debate season that could be unlike any other.
The GOP has an advantage in drawing “one of the most diverse, broad” fields it’s ever had, said Saul Anuzis, a former Republican National Committee member from Michigan. “But what if by the first debate we still have 10 to 15 viable candidates? That’s going to be a zoo.”
Part of the problem is basic math. In a 90-minute debate featuring so many candidates, there would be only enough time for opening and closing statements and two, maybe three questions — with no time left over for the interaction between candidates that makes for an actual debate.
Thus, a process filled with opportunity as the GOP seeks to highlight its diverse crop of candidates, but also fraught with risk as some of the traditional ways of making the cut could exclude some who have won statewide office, not to mention the only woman and African-American in the field.
“This is the political equivalent of breaking an atom open,” said Republican National Committee strategist Sean Spicer.
Worried they might be left out, several candidates are encouraging the RNC to consider creative options, including debate “heats.” Brad Todd, an adviser to the super PAC backing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, is pushing RNC Chairman Reince Priebus to hold two 90-minute debates on consecutive nights featuring different groups of candidates.
Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the 2012 Republican primary contest, floated the same idea as he visited with RNC officials in Arizona this week.
“I am concerned about potentially a large field and any attempt to try to squeeze that field down to the preferred group,” Santorum said. “If you drew straws to the two different debates, I guarantee you you’d have good people in both debates that would draw audiences.”
Others are privately pressing party leaders to allow for the broadest participation possible in the first debate, set for this August in Cleveland. Businessman and TV personality Donald Trump is among those whose advisers have spoken directly with Priebus in recent days.
“Selfishly, the networks would put me on because I get great ratings,” said Trump, who has launched a presidential exploratory committee. “We spoke to Reince today and they want me on.”
Yet Trump’s place on the debate stage is by no means assured. There is broad agreement that participants must be announced candidates and reach an undetermined threshold in national polling, with final criteria to be approved by the television networks partnering with the party to host 12 debates between August and March.
There are currently eight contenders who poll consistently at or above 5 percent: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
While Trump typically polls close to 5 percent when included in surveys, there are several high-profile prospects who do not. Among them: former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former technology executive Carly Fiorina.
Organizers are also considering factors such as campaign and super PAC fundraising, experience in office, polling in the early voting states and the desire to have as diverse a field on stage as possible.
Spicer said Friday the RNC opposes any consideration of race or sex as criteria, but some party officials are particularly focused on elevating Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field. The overwhelming front-runner on the Democratic side is Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Sex should not be one of the criteria that the committee uses, and I’m quite confident I’ll be on the debate stage,” Fiorina, who is drawing roughly 1 percent in national polls, told reporters this week during the RNC’s spring meeting in Phoenix.
Kasich supporters, meanwhile, are incredulous that a two-term governor from a must-win swing state could be excluded.
“If they don’t put him in the debate, there’s going to be some explaining to do,” said Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges.
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