Fox Expands GOP Debate Format Amid Criticism

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Facing growing pushback from activists and the leading newspaper in the early voting state of New Hampshire, Fox News has agreed to amend the format for the first presidential debate to make it more inclusive. 

Late Wednesday, the sponsor of the debate on Aug. 6 announced an additional 90-minute forum for candidates who do not qualify for the main event, which is limited to the top 10 contenders in an average of national polls. 

Fox said the second forum was part of an original plan to provide additional coverage for lower-tier contenders. That forum will take place on the same day as the main debate and will be moderated by Fox News hosts Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum. 

The announcement comes after the network and the Republican National Committee drew criticism for settling on a debate system that excludes candidates based on national polls and in effect winnows the field before the campaign process in the early states has had a chance to play out.  

New Hampshire activists, operatives and legislators sent a letter to Fox and the RNC on Wednesday urging the sponsors to amend the format, arguing that early state polls are more precise in registering voter sentiments than national ones. 

The New Hampshire Union-Leader then announced it would host its own forum for candidates left off the prime-time stage; that event would be broadcast on C-SPAN and radio.  

"What Fox is attempting to do, and is actually bragging about doing, is a real threat to the first-in-the-nation primary," said the paper’s publisher, Joseph McQuaid, in an article announcing the paper’s forum. "Voters here have an independent streak … and they might well be disposed to vote for a so-called 'also-ran' who didn't meet the Fox criteria but who has spent the time and effort here to meet them and answer their questions."  

Even though Fox amended its format, the Union-Leader has not changed its plans to host the separate forum for candidates. "We are definitely going to be taking a look at what Fox does and what they include and what the format is going to be, but so far our plans haven't changed," Executive Editor Trent Spiner told RCP, noting that the paper has been in touch with the RNC.

The Union-Leader had not yet determined what kind of format it would hold for the candidates, if it continues with its plans. Rules set in place by the RNC earlier this year to limit the number of debates also prevent candidates from participating in non-sanctioned debates. The rules were part of a concerted effort by the RNC to prevent what it saw as a circus of endless debates last cycle, which the committee believes did more harm than good to the eventual nominee. But after the RNC successfully limited the number of debates to nine—with the first set for Cleveland, the site of the GOP 2016 convention -- it faced a new dilemma of having too many candidates and not enough room or time to showcase them. 

The RNC had approved the criteria set by Fox to limit the stage to 10 candidates, but the format received backlash for potentially excluding the only GOP woman running, an Indian-American candidate, and some current and former governors and senators, including 2012 primary’s runner-up. 

CNN, the host of the second scheduled debate in California, established a two-tiered format that would consist of one debate for the top 10 contenders and another for the remainder of the field, all to be held on the same night.

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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