Debate outcry leads to new forums

New York CNN —  

Frustration over the plans for Republican presidential primary debates is boiling over, causing some candidates to publicly complain about the process and resulting in two additional forums now scheduled for August.

The tension comes from competing interests: a swollen field of candidates who all want face time with voters versus television producers who want the events to be watchable and actually instigate debate.

Fifteen or 20 candidates on a crowded stage probably isn’t the answer. But there’s widespread disagreement about what the right answer is.

Back in May, Fox News announced a plan for an August 6 debate that would only include the 10 candidates that were at the top of the heap, as determined by an average of national polls.

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The rest of the field, outside the top 10, would receive air time on other Fox programs that day, but would not be invited to the debate, the channel said.

At the same time, CNN, the owner of this web site, announced a different plan for the second primary season debate, scheduled for September 16. The CNN debate will have two tiers: a top tier for the 8 to 10 candidates faring best in the polls, and a bottom tier for candidates who aren’t polling as well, but still have at least 1% support.

Fox’s proposed criteria created the most consternation, partly because it is hosting the first debate, partly because it is a favorite of conservatives, and partly because its rules are more restrictive than CNN’s.

Some Republican Party leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire have said they feel the use of national polls stomps on their roles as the first in the nation caucus and primary states, respectively.

Along those same lines, commentators have predicted that candidates will spend the next two months jockeying for national poll position, perhaps playing to television and digital audiences at the expense of voters in early voting states.

And yet – what are the channels supposed to do? Allow every person who files to run for president come up on stage?

Concerns have deepened in recent days. Members of the New Hampshire Republican Party wrote to Fox News and the Republican National Committee on Wednesday to issue formal objections to the plan.

“Denying candidates an opportunity to showcase their talents and experience in the first televised debate would artificially distort the political process, stifle democracy and competition, and induce voters to consider only those candidates pre-selected by virtue of their name ID rather than their potential as candidates,” the letter said in part.

The letter was followed by an announcement by the Union Leader, a New Hampshire newspaper, that it’s going to hold a forum for candidates the same day as the Fox debate. It would presumably give candidates outside the top 10 a chance to gain media attention; it will be televised by C-SPAN.

“What Fox is attempting to do, and is actually bragging about doing, is a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary,” Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid said in a statement.

By the end of the day Wednesday, Fox had announced its own forum for the day of the debate.

“The candidates, who do not qualify for the prime-time GOP primary debate, will be among those invited to participate in the 90-minute forum, which is part of the additional planned candidate coverage previously announced by the network,” Fox said in a press release.

The forum will take place at 1 p.m. on August 6.

Candidates must have 1% support in “an average of the five most recent national polls,” as recognized by Fox, in order to participate.

A whole lot could change between now and August. Forums may or may not comply with the party’s rules, which seek to penalize candidates who participate in non-sanctioned debates.

And candidates may continue to speak out against the top ten threshold for the main, prime time Fox event.

Rick Santorum, a candidate and former contributor to Fox, has been quoted saying: “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.”