What’s really behind the debate over the Republican debates?

Story highlights

GOP candidates complain that the moderators take too much air time and interrupt those on stage

The Republican presidential hopefuls also said the moderators are biased against conservatives

Each candidate has reasons for wanting a different format that most suits his or her campaign

Washington CNN  — 

So much for a smooth Republican debate season.

Just three debates in, the saga over the CNBC Republican showdown in Colorado last week has dashed the hopes of party bosses that the storm of controversy and recrimination over debates that clouded the 2012 campaign – and hampered eventual nominee Mitt Romney – could be avoided.

Last time around, candidates griped that there were too many debates – there were 20 in all – and that their frequency and need for preparation interrupted campaigns and elevated long-shot hopefuls who had no chance of winning the nomination in the media spotlight.

This time, especially following the CNBC debate Wednesday, candidates are complaining that the moderators are taking too much airtime, keep interrupting those on stage and are biased against conservatives. Front-runners say that those stuck in single digits in the polls shouldn’t even be in the debates while the dark horses complain that being confined to second-tier events is killing their campaigns.

But while the candidates have been quick to jump on the moderators and the networks hosting them, in truth each candidate has reasons for wanting a different format that most suits his or her campaign. The result has been another round of controversy and recrimination.

Sunday’s meeting of campaign operatives produced a tentative truce with a modest set of demands for changes to the format of future debates, but even that initiative split the GOP field. By Monday night, Donald Trump, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina had declined to sign on.

The issue is likely to persist as long as the GOP field remains bloated, guaranteeing constant tensions as each candidate jockeys for position – whether for more time on screen or fewer minutes in the hot seat.

Here is how the Republican White House hopefuls are playing the debate over debates for their own advantage.

Donald Trump

What he wants: Trump has made no secret of his desire for cuts in the size of the top-tier GOP debate. He’s publicly warned the likes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul they shouldn’t even be sharing a stage with him.

“There are too many people on the debate stage. It should be five. Let the other eight or nine or 10 go onto the second debate,” Trump’s special counsel Michael Cohen said on CNN’s “New Day” on Monday. Trump, who faded during a three-hour-long debate on CNN in September, has also led calls for the events to be limited to two hours.

Why he wants it: The billionaire front-runner is a master of manipulating the media and doesn’t want to share his spotlight. The more candidates he can exclude from the stage, the less competition he has to confront head on at the top.

Ben Carson

What he wants: The former neurosurgeon has called for the GOP to abandon the current format for televised debates. He says journalist moderators ask “gotcha” questions and wants debates to be stripped from the networks and carried on YouTube or Facebook and become more of a forum-style event, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Why he wants it: Since Carson is not a professional politician, he has far less experience in the cut-and-thrust of debate than many of his competitors. His soft-spoken, laid-back style seems a better fit for less adversarial settings. And some of his answers on the details of policy have been shaky during the past two debates, giving him even more incentive to avoid such scrutiny.

Marco Rubio

What he wants: Rubio is happy to take the chance to turn tough questions or those he deems unfair into a chance to lash the “liberal” media. He’s called the moderators of the CNBC debate biased and says they asked trivial questions. And he didn’t wait until the showdown was over last week before castigating the media as a de facto arm of the Democratic Party.

“The Democrats have the ultimate super PAC … called the mainstream media for every single day,” Rubio said while on the debate stage.

READ: 2016 Republicans vs. the media

Why he wants it: Rubio wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He’s got strong political reasons to slam the media, as doing so delights conservative voters who harbor suspicions about his record, including on immigration.

But the Florida senator also wants to ensure GOP debates remain on platforms such as cable television outlets that draw huge audiences and are introducing him to a wide spectrum of voters before a possible general election campaign.

Rubio has improved his performance in each of the three Republican debates so far and his sharp political skills – evidenced in his putdown of Jeb Bush in Colorado – are ideally suited to such an adversarial setting.

Jeb Bush

What he wants: Jeb Bush probably cannot wait until the next Republican debate, on November 10, to try to dispel memories of his lifeless and disjointed showing in the CNBC clash. He partly blamed the moderators of the CNBC debate for his woes, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the event was “weird” and that he was stopped from answering a Rubio slapdown by moderators.

Why he wants it: Bush is fighting a narrative of decay that is beginning to envelop his campaign after his disaster in the Rockies. He must seize on any and all debate opportunities to try to ignite a comeback narrative.

Chris Christie

What he wants: The New Jersey governor has one thing to say to those who complain that the debates are unfair: Bring it on.

“Do not count me in this group that is doing this moaning and complaining about this,” Christie told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday. “The presidency is almost never scripted. We shouldn’t have these debates scripted either.”

Why he wants it: Christie has his own comeback narrative to work on as he languishes at 1% in national polls. So any time he can get into a debate with the front-runners, he benefits – as he did after a strong performance in the Colorado debate.

Christie is another candidate who does well when the back-and-forth heats up, so he would join a debate every week if he could. Debate appearances also allow him to exploit the “straight shooter” persona he adopted as governor of the Garden State and which he is using to try to haul himself into contention in the New Hampshire primary – his best chance for a decent result in an early voting state.

Ted Cruz

What he wants: Thank the Texas senator for getting this ball rolling. Cruz, using the forensic debating skills honed at Harvard Law School and as one of the most talented Supreme Court litigators of his generation, lacerated the CNBC debate as it was still going on. He followed up that coup by demanding debates hosted by the high priests of the conservative talk radio scene – Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin.

Why he wants it: Cruz, who is quietly building a strong challenge for the nomination, is keen to do anything he can to dominate the conservative voting bloc, which also happens to revere the trio of talk show hosts. Though his rivals appear unlikely to allow it to happen, such a spectacle would leave Cruz basking in reflected glory.

Carly Fiorina

What she wants: “I’ll debate anyone, any time, any place,” the only woman in the GOP field tweeted Monday. Fiorina would also be keen to get key conservatives into the mix. In another tweet, she said that conservative radio host Glenn Beck should be considered.

Why she wants it: In a sense, Fiorina’s campaign barely exists off the debate stage. Her fiery showing in the undercard debate on Fox in August nudged her poll numbers up sufficiently to get her into the top-tier debate CNN hosted in September.

But away from the debate stage, Fiorina has struggled to keep in the public eye, and her hopes of a future in Republican politics rely on as much exposure as possible.

John Kasich

What he wants: The Ohio governor is another candidate who wants more debates and is seeking the moral high ground by being happy to take any question that comes up. He told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday that he is “the governor of the seventh-largest state in America, and I have had so many questions thrown at me over the course of my time.”

READ: Republican debate: Winners and losers

Why he wants it: Kasich is billing himself as the kind of candidate the Republicans need, someone who can win his own crucial general election swing state and others like it. So parrying hostile questions from moderators that other candidates consider biased and reaching out to the vast cable television audience watching the debates makes strategic sense.

Rand Paul

What he wants: Trust the libertarian Republican to have an idea far from the mainstream. The Kentucky senator and veteran filibusterer joked that he’d back a 13-hour debate and give each candidate an hour to talk. He says having no moderator at all would be worth looking at and hit out at “gotcha” questions.

Why he wants it: At this point, with his campaign falling well short of expectations, the more time before a national audience Paul can get, the better.

Mike Huckabee

What he wants: Mike Huckabee, the former cable news pundit and Arkansas governor, said on Fox News after Wednesday’s debate that changes that were needed in the debate format because running for president was a serious business and candidates shouldn’t be part of a TV station’s effort to drive up ratings.

READ: GOP debate revolt crumbles

Why he wants it: Huckabee’s campaign has barely made a ripple this time around, after he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 on the way to coming second in the GOP delegate count. So any publicity is good publicity and Huckabee’s brand of folksy humor is tailor-made for the debate stage.

Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and George Pataki

What they want: Each man, stuck in the purgatory of undercard debates, wants a chance to hit prime time. South Carolina Sen. Graham, for instance, wants two GOP debates of seven candidates each.

“We have too many people on one stage and too few on the other,” Graham told CNN on Monday.

Former New York Gov. Pataki believes that if Americans only get to see him, they will view him as a potential commander in chief. As many Americans as possible must be exposed to the candidates, he said, as it’s “the best way to pick a president.”

Why they want it: Survival.