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How the GOP might host debates with so many 2016 prospects

Graphic shows tentative debate schedule for Republican presidential candidates; 1c x 4 inches; 46.5 mm x 101 mm;

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.”

How the GOP might keep things under control:

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ALL ON STAGE

Some potential candidates want party leaders to allow for the broadest participation possible in the first debate, which is set for Cleveland. Among them: businessman and TV personality Donald Trump. “Selfishly, the networks would put me on because I get great ratings,” said Trump, who has launched a presidential exploratory committee.

But such an approach quickly runs into problems. 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.

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HEAT IS ON

Several candidates have encouraged the RNC to consider debate “heats.” Rather than one debate with every candidate, they suggest two 90-minute debates on consecutive nights featuring different groups of candidates.

“I am concerned about potentially a large field and any attempt to try to squeeze that field down to the preferred group,” said Rick Santorum, the runner-up in the 2012 Republican primary contest. “If you drew straws to the two different debates, I guarantee you you’d have good people in both debates that would draw audiences.”

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POLL POSITIONS

Another way to cut down the size of the field is to assess how the public views them via polls. For example, 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.

That would leave behind several high-profile prospects who do not. Among them: 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.

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OTHER STANDARDS

Republican Party officials are considering whether to weigh 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. But Republican National Committee strategist Sean Spicer said the party opposes any consideration of race or gender as criteria.

Some party officials are particularly focused on elevating Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field. But Fiorina, drawing roughly 1 percent in national polls, said this week that “sex should not be one of the criteria that the committee uses, and I’m quite confident I’ll be on the debate stage.”

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LENO OPTION

One thing not on the table is what might be called the Leno option. In 2003, comedian Jay Leno invited the 135 people running for governor of California to a debate on “The Tonight Show.” They were given the chance to answer a question about how they would improve the state. To make time for every answer, Leno gave the 90 candidates who accepted his debate invitation, including former child actor Gary Coleman, just 10 seconds each to answer.

And because even that would have taken too long, and wouldn’t have been very funny, they were the same 10 seconds.

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Follow Steve Peoples on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/sppeoples

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