GOP Debates --Why Not a Two-Night Mini-Series?

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Sen. Lindsey Graham recently unloaded on Fox News and the Republican National Committee for their exclusionary rules governing participation in the all-important first Republican presidential debate Aug. 6 in Cleveland. That debate is limited to the top 10 candidates as determined by a basket of five national polls.

 “It’s a dumb idea,” the South Carolina senator said. “We are setting in motion the destruction of the early caucus and primary states.”

Graham may have self-serving motives—he’s one of the 2016 GOP candidates who hasn’t made the cut—but he also has a valid point. The Top 10 list may have been a great career move for David Letterman, but it’s a lousy way to determine candidate access to the presidential debates.

Opinion surveys seven months prior to the Iowa caucuses say very little about the shape of the race. They can reflect celebrity (Donald Trump or  Ben Carson), fundraising prowess and a family name (Jeb Bush), or a past national candidacy (Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum), but the polls say very little about the real state of the campaign, what issues are resonating, who is connecting with voters. That’s what the campaign, including the debates, is supposed to determine. Few voters have strong views or preferences on the candidates at this early stage. 

As of today, the Fox debate may not include three innovative GOP governors (John Kasich, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal) — or Graham, one of the party’s leading foreign policy experts in the Senate. Several of the excludees could be strong candidates in what will be a tough race against a well-funded Democrat (Hillary Clinton in all likelihood). Arbitrary participation rules hardly allow Republican voters to assess all of the candidates and cast a thoughtful ballot in their state. 

Fortunately, there are better ways to give all candidates access to the debates. CNN is sponsoring the second debate at the Reagan Library Sept. 16, and the network is planning back-to-back sessions to give exposure to all candidates who score at least 1 percent in the national polls. However, CNN still insists on assembling a top-tier group and a second-tier group based again on national surveys, and it is unclear how much time each tier will be allotted.

A better variation on the CNN format is to hold two debates on consecutive nights with participants in each determined by draw. Think of it as a two-night mini-series. Interest would build, not wane. It’s more time for wall-to-wall coverage, analysis and more opportunity for the network stars to shine. Some of the press will spend an extra night in the host city and the venue must be available on consecutive nights, but these are details that can be worked out.

The annual NFL draft of college football players is televised three consecutive days. The NCAA college basketball Final Four is held on Saturday and Monday nights. The host network should like the ratings and another prime-time event. The Republican National Committee should relish a second night in the spotlight. The intellectual diversity of the GOP field of serious candidates would be a compelling contrast with the Democrats’ small, lackluster, ideologically similar group.

Republicans have the strongest, most serious group of candidates since 1980. It’s not the job of cable networks to narrow the field prematurely. It’s the job of the voters.

Frank J. Donatelli was assistant to President Reagan for political and intergovernmental affairs and is a past deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. He grew up in Pennsylvania.

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