The new presidential debates?

The new presidential debates?

Republican presidential hopefuls may be rid of an overloaded debate schedule, but a packed calendar of forums is taking their place. 

Conservative activists and right-leaning news outlets are scrambling to plan a heavy schedule of candidate gatherings ahead of the first official debate in August. 

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They're getting encouragement and support from the Republican National Committee, which is working closely with a number of organizations to make sure they stay within the RNC’s new rules restricting the number of debates.

The moves are a concerted effort by the RNC to play nice with conservatives, while also keeping a firm hand on the debate schedule and make sure 2016 doesn’t turn into a repeat of 2012’s unprecedented 23 primary debates. 

“Forums are great. We encourage them,” said Communications Director Sean Spicer.

The RNC’s efforts are twofold: keep party activists happy, while making sure everyone abides by the rules and avoid the stampede of debates that occurred last time, which many believe ultimately hurt 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s chances against President Obama. 

For the 2016 cycle, the party has approved nine presidential debates, with three more possible. And to make sure that none of the many forums cropping up turn into de facto debates, the RNC has devised two rules.

First, the candidates can’t directly engage each other for more than 15 minutes. Second, while forums can be recorded, they can’t be live-streamed or broadcast for more than 15 minutes. And if candidates participate in events that break those rules, they’ll be barred from the officially sanctioned, nationally televised debates.

The new rules won’t stop candidates from going after each other, or saying something that could make headlines. And in modern campaigns, cameras are always on. But the new rules could lessen candidates’ missteps.

“People are going to say brilliant things, and they're going to say less than brilliant things,” said Henry Barbour, a national committeeman and close ally of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus. “But 23 debates is too many, and handing the debate over to a TV network wasn't smart either. I think the RNC is trying to give our candidates the best opportunity to have a good exchange in the debates.”

The RNC has already worked with other organizations on their events — Freedom Partners, the group founded by billionaire donors Charles and David Koch, worked with the RNC to make sure their event last month featuring Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action McConnell urges Trump to voice support for Hong Kong protesters MORE (Fla.), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard Paul Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy MORE (Ky.), Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLawmakers spar over surveillance flight treaty with Russia Senators voice support for Iran protesters but stop short of taking action Prisons chief: FBI investigating whether 'criminal enterprise' played role in Epstein death MORE (Texas) and Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.) didn’t violate any rules.

The party is also talking to other right-wing groups and media organizations to help them plan future events that will comply with its new rules.

“If the Farm Bureau or Tea Party wants to have a forum with their members that's great,” said Spicer. “There's more to come in terms of conservative partnerships. This thing is getting strengthened. There will be more partnerships announced in the next few weeks. … For us, it's great these groups are reaching out and trying to make it work. We're talking to people literally on a daily basis.”

It’s a long time until Election Day, and what the RNC is trying to do hasn’t been attempted before. But so far, it seems to be working — and garnering positive reviews from influential conservatives. 

“It's a good thing,” said Sam Clovis, an Iowa conservative kingmaker who’s involved in planning an upcoming forum focused on foreign policy. “What the RNC is trying to do is avoid having candidates placed in a situation where there are ‘gotcha’ questions asked. They want a better environment for the candidates.” 

Clovis said the forums will replace the runaway debate schedule and give voters a chance to vet candidates.

“It looks like there's going to be at least one event every month [in Iowa] up through the caucuses,” he said.

That doesn’t mean everyone’s pleased with the new rules — or that candidates won’t seek to gain attention by attacking them.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal scoffed at the “futile” efforts to control the debate calendar in a Monday breakfast with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

“I know there is a lot of concern, especially in this town among Republican Party leaders. … There’s this ideal of theirs, this idealistic belief, that if we could just have fewer debates, if we could have a gentler, kinder nominating process, that would be good for the party and good for the nominee. Well you know what? Democracy is messy,” he said.

“If the candidates want to do it, there are going to be forums, debates, whatever they call themselves,” Jindal continued. “I think it’s almost a futile effort because the reality is … as long as there are that many candidates, there are going to be a number of different forums. … People might come up with creative names. They might call them forums. They might call them discussions. They might call them whatever.”

But Jindal’s comments were mostly met with crickets on the right, a sign that conservatives aren’t raging against the GOP machine on this issue. 

Jindal also doesn’t seem to want to pursue a fight with the RNC over the issue. An adviser to the Louisiana governor denied that the comments were aimed at the national party or its rule-making process. 

“We're not trying to start a war," said the adviser. "The governor was just saying his general opinion that anytime the smart guys in Washington try to get together and set the rules, it doesn't work, and he's not for it."