GOP campaigns move to seize control of debate process
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ALEXANDRIA, VA — The GOP presidential contenders moved Sunday night to wrest control over the debate process from the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the networks hosting the events.
 
The campaigns will squeeze out the RNC, which has so far taken the lead in negotiating the terms of each debate with the networks. 
 

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Going forward, the RNC will continue to be involved in debate operations, campaign advisers said, such as media credentialing and ticket sales, but will not take the lead in negotiating the formats of the debates.

“They’ll continue to do logistics and all that kind of stuff,” said Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonHUD chief Carson broke law with unauthorized purchases, GAO says Trump immigration rule could displace 55K children from public housing: HUD Harris, House Dems push for mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in public housing MORE’s campaign manager Barry Bennett. “But they’re a partner. They’re not our boss.”
 
As for the networks, the meeting at a hotel in the Washington suburbs ended with no firm conclusions but with the promise for more talks about future debates.
 
In a letter to be sent next week, the Republican campaigns will ask that a conference call be arranged before each debate between the host network and all of the campaigns to negotiate terms for the debate.
 
Among the changes many of the campaigns wish to see are a guarantee that the candidates get opening and closing remarks, an even distribution of speaking time, a two-hour time limit on the debate and control over biographical graphics displayed when the candidates are speaking.


That could set up some tough talks with television networks, which are likely to demand some measures of editorial control over the debates they broadcast.
 
At the same time, this year’s debates have been a television ratings bonanza, giving leverage to GOP candidates — particularly front-runners Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE and Ben Carson.

Sunday’s meeting was spearheaded by the Carson and Trump campaigns, both of whom are looking to leverage their lofty statuses in the race to push for changes.

“If you have the opportunity to have the RNC or Mr. Trump negotiate, who would you rather?” asked Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Said Bennett: “Obviously, some of us have more power than others.”

By seizing control over the negotiations, the campaigns believe they’ll have a better understanding of the rules and formats ahead of time. It’s something they believe has been lacking from the first three debates.

“The campaigns want a greater degree of transparency and accountability in the way the debate process is working,” said Ben Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who was on hand for the meeting. “The information flow has not been what it’s been in past years. Campaigns should be able to get details of the debate far sooner than they have at this point in the cycle.”

The Sunday night meeting was provoked by last Wednesday’s CNBC debate, which infuriated the candidates and their campaigns on a number of fronts. 



CNBC didn’t allow for opening statements, in accordance with previously agreed-upon criteria, the speaking times for the candidates was skewed, the debate ran longer than agreed-upon and conservatives have lashed out at the moderators over questions they believe were unfair, biased or irrelevant.



The RNC is caught in the middle, insisting that it doesn’t have control over the networks in determining several critical factors, such as the criteria to qualify, the lengths of the debates, speaking time allotment and what questions are asked or whether there are opening and closing statements.



The RNC has sought to be proactive in responding to the campaign complaints, moving last week to pull out of a planned Feb. 26 debate with NBC, which owns CNBC.



And on Sunday night, the RNC assigned a new staff member to act as a liaison between the campaigns and the networks.



The campaign advisers leaving Sunday’s meeting said they were happy with both moves but that the damage has been done.



Several of the candidates publicly ripped the RNC over the weekend, and representatives from the group were not invited to Sunday night’s gathering.



Still, with the huge number of candidates, each with specific concerns, it’s hard to see how wholesale changes could occur to the formats.

Carson, whose campaign spearheaded the gathering, thinks there are too many debates and not enough time for each of the candidates to expound on their policy views.


His campaign has proposed going around the networks by streaming the debates online and providing for longer opening and closing statements so the candidates can spend more time speaking about what they believe is important.


Trump wants fewer people on the main stage and has sought to control the logistics of the process to ensure the debates don’t run too long and feature opening and closing statements.



Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and others are upset about the unequal speaking time for the candidates and the negative tone of the debates, which often have pitted the candidates against one another.



Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who have been relegated to the undercard debates, want spots on the main stage or at least a format that allows for two main stages determined by a random draw.
 
For those candidates who don’t get what they want out of the negotiations, a high-stakes decision will be at hand.

“Every campaign has the right to show up or not show up,” said Bennett.

Jonathan Swan contributed. This story was updated at 10:03 p.m.