Report: RNC quietly settling on cap of 12 candidates for first GOP debates

I liked Team Jindal’s idea of splitting the field into two groups and holding back to back debates. (Or, since it’s the Internet age, of holding them at the same time and simulcasting one on TV and the other on the network’s website.) But only the hardest of hardcore political junkies will sit through two nights of political chatter, so whoever ends up in Group B will end up whining that Group A had a larger audience.

Alternate solution: One field of 12, with at least three unlucky candidates shunted to the sidelines into obscurity and almost certain defeat. Who’s it going to be?

A broad consensus is beginning to take hold among Republican party officials that the presidential primary debates shouldn’t include any more than a dozen candidates — despite the fact that there might be as many as 19 declared candidates by the time the primary debates start this August.

Though the precise criteria for debate participation ultimately will be decided by the networks staging them — and party leaders continue to insist nothing has been finalized — there is behind-the-scenes agreement here at the Republican National Committee spring meeting that the first debates should be capped at 12 candidates.

“Our goal is to accommodate as many candidates as possible at the beginning,” said Steve Duprey, the New Hampshire committeeman who chairs the RNC’s 2016 debate committee. “I think there’s consensus to cap it between nine and 12. And we may not need more than that, depending on how the contest goes. Each of the media partners may have different criteria and they’re going to evolve.”

Who’s in and who’s out? Let’s start with the easy ones: Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, and Cruz are each big-name, big-money, credible contenders for the nomination, all representing different niches of the party. They’re gimmes. John Kasich will start out as an asterisk in the polls but there’ll be pressure from the RNC to make sure that Ohio is represented onstage. I assume he’s in. The party will also presumably want Mike Huckabee onstage, partly because Republicans nationally like him, partly because it’ll give the deep south a rooting interest, and partly because they want to make sure evangelicals don’t take it as a snub if he’s excluded. That’s seven candidates. The remaining five slots (assuming there aren’t fewer!) will be distributed among Perry, Christie, Jindal, Graham, Carson, Fiorina, Santorum, and, er, Donald Trump. The first four *should* be easy picks since they’re all current governors or senators apart from Perry, who’s less than six months removed from his own governorship. If you pick them, though, then there’s only one spot left for the only black candidate and the only woman candidate in the field. And as much as all of us (well, most of us) would like to see Trump booted to deny him the chance to turn the GOP nomination process into a self-promotional vehicle, the cold hard fact is that ratings will be higher with him onstage, and not just because of his celebrity. Realistically, the only candidate who can “safely” be excluded is Santorum, a guy who hasn’t held office recently, overlaps significantly policy-wise with the more charismatic Huckabee, and had ample opportunity to introduce himself to Republican voters during the last campaign.

That would be the same Rick Santorum, by the way, who ended up as the last man standing against Romney and who’s currently polling ahead of at least four other candidates in the RCP average.

I think this is actually a fairly easy call if you’re willing to apply a subjective standard. The standard is (or should be): Does this candidate have even a faint chance of landing on the GOP ticket? I wouldn’t make winning the nomination the cut-off; if there’s a plausible argument that someone might end up as the VP pick then sure, let’s have him/her up there too so that Republicans can get an early look. By that standard, you’ve got the big five plus Kasich, Huckabee, Jindal, Perry, and Christie. Fiorina fans will grumble that she’s a contender for VP, but that’s not really true. If the GOP insists on having a woman on the ticket, it’ll be Susana Martinez. Perry and Christie are borderline cases since neither man’s going to be VP and it’s … not obvious what their path is to the nomination, but they’re both governors with many years of experience and both sufficiently talented retail politicians that you wouldn’t want to deny them a chance to make a splash in front of the cameras. That would be a solid field of 10, with Trump et al. left to grouse about their exclusion. Here’s a potentially fun alternative, though, if you don’t like that set-up: Why not, a la March Madness, have one or two “play-in games” for the more marginal candidates? Name Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, and Cruz as part of the final field, then hold a few debates among the remaining candidates and let viewers vote online to see who they want to see in the “real” debates. The big five might not like that since it would give lesser regarded candidates some additional free exposure, but it’d be fun to watch Christie and Jindal sweat onstage for fear that Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina will end up outpolling them and taking their place in the “real” debates. Throw Trump in there too while you’re at it. If this process is going to be a circus, it at least ought to be fun.

Exit question: Ben Domenech recommends dumping debate moderators altogether and letting the candidates go at it Lincoln-Douglas style. Has the time come?

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