N.H. Republicans Push Back on Debate Criteria

N.H. Republicans Push Back on Debate Criteria
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The debate about the debates continues. 

Over 50 GOP activists, delegates, and officeholders from the early voting state of New Hampshire have written an open letter urging Fox News and the Republican National Committee to reconsider the credentialing process for the first presidential candidate debate in August, which will include just the top 10 contenders in national opinion polls. 

The letter, addressed to Fox News President Roger Ailes and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, expresses concern that limiting the number of participants will undermine the role of the Granite State’s primary in February 2016. 

“Historically, it has been the responsibility of early primary and caucus states to closely examine and winnow the field of candidates, and it is not in the electorate’s interest to have TV debate criteria supplant this solemn duty,” reads the letter, signed by two former governors, and current and former state representatives, delegates, party organizers and RNC members, some of whom are supporting lower-tier candidates (though most are uncommitted thus far).  

The writers argue against basing criteria for entry on national polls that don’t necessarily reflect sentiment in the early states, which may render more realistic assessments in the absence of a national primary.  

“The proposed limitations are unnecessarily narrow and risk eliminating potentially viable candidates based on unreliable national polling that is rarely predictive of primary election outcomes,” the letter reads. “Any metric used to select the top ten candidates based on public polling this early in the nominating process would make it impossible to ensure fairness.” 

Instead, the activists suggest dividing up the field—which could reach as many as 18 candidates by the time of the August debate in Cleveland—into two panels that would face off either back to back on the same night or on two consecutive nights. Three of the top six contenders in public polls would be selected at random for one session and the remaining three for the second session, with the rest of the candidates divided evenly between the two groupings. 

The format is somewhat similar to what has been established by CNN, the host of the second Republican presidential debate, which will divide the field into two halves based on public polling. The top 10 contenders will debate on one panel and the remaining candidates will debate on another in the same night. 

The debate dilemma has vexed the Republican Party this cycle, as an unprecedented number of qualified candidates have entered or are planning on joining the primary field, and there isn’t enough room on one stage to house them all, or time to give everyone an equal say. RNC officials have struggled with limiting the number of participants based solely on polling, as it has the potential to keep from the stage the field’s only woman, for example, or other diverse yet qualified candidates.  

Carly Fiorina has used the criterion as a motivational tool, hoping to gain enough support and momentum to make the cut. 

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was the runner-up in the 2012 GOP primary, is at the bottom of the polls and could fall short. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (pictured), who is moving towards a run, is similarly polling poorly, if he’s mentioned at all, and would thus be prohibited from participating in the debate that will take place in his home state. 

The RNC has already expressed its support for the debate criteria established by Fox and CNN. 

Still, the New Hampshire activists are worried about a system in which the sponsoring media outlet plays a role in winnowing the field. Preventing some candidates from making their case on the stage in the early going would “prematurely suppress the candidate field and arbitrarily elevate candidates who benefit from preliminary notoriety and fundraising,” the New Hampshire Republicans wrote.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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