GOP's debate plight: Big cast, small stage

“Certainly, it’s much more difficult for any candidate to make a positive impact with that many candidates on the stage—you’re not having a debate anymore, what you’re having is a spelling bee,” says Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid.  

“What makes it even more challenging is different candidates enter the race with different objectives, which means they have different goals on the stage,” says Schnur, who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “The problem for the real candidates is they tend to get overshadowed by the fake ones. This isn’t a new problem, but the sheer number of candidates makes it a much more challenging one.” 

That sheer number is going to require the hosts to be creative. Schnur jokingly suggested a format similar to the NCAA tournament, with regional debates ending in a final four matchup. 

Jamieson suggested a format that breaks candidates into groups and limits the questions each group gets to address. Or, she said, moderators might ask candidates to raise their hands to answer certain questions, or they could limit discussion by asking if any candidate has an answer that differs substantially from ones already given.