Conflicting strategies shape GOP debate furor
Despite a handful of high-profile defections, most Republican presidential candidates are still demanding changes to the GOP’s coming debates. That’s not to say they are speaking with one voice. The White House hopefuls have distinct, sometimes contradictory, strategies to score political points from the uproar.
Some, like Ted Cruz, are going after debate hosts to rally conservatives who despise the media. Others, such as Ben Carson, are organizing debate critics to help demonstrate leadership. A few, like Donald Trump, are breaking with the rest of the field to show they are not part of a herd. And there are those, including Lindsey Graham, who simply want to be part of the main event.
There are obvious risks, like being made fun of by Democrats.
“If you can’t handle those guys (debate questioners), I don’t think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you,” President Barack Obama quipped during a New York fundraiser this week.
Carson spokesman Doug Watts said more than 10 candidates are expected to sign a letter outlining their demands. Among other priorities, the candidates want to bypass the Republican National Committee and negotiate debate terms directly with media hosts, ensure everyone is asked the same number of questions and pre-approve all on-screen graphics. They’re pressing for a comfortable room temperature, too.
The list came from a closed-door meeting Sunday night organized by the Carson camp with representatives from more than a dozen campaigns.
Trump on Tuesday called the effort “irrelevant.” His camp says he will continue to deal with media hosts directly as he has done in the past. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former technology executive Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have declined to sign the letter.
“We’re disappointed that Trump doesn’t want to get involved,” Watts said. “However, many of us — 11 or 12 — do want to sign.”
Trump criticized CNBC, the network that put on the last debate, during a press conference Tuesday and challenged the fairness of a debate system he said produced harder questions for Republican candidates than Democrats. But he wasn’t too agitated about it.
“I don’t really care that much,” Trump said. “I want a room, I want a podium, and let’s get going.”
On the other side of the spectrum sits Cruz, a Texas senator and tea party favorite who scored a breakout moment during last week’s debate by attacking the moderators and seized on the issue ever since.
His campaign reported raising $1.1 million in the 22 hours after the debate. And campaigning in Iowa over the weekend, he was cheered after calling for future debates to be moderated by conservatives such as radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“Join me in declaring war on the liberal media agenda,” Cruz wrote in a recent fundraising appeal. “On the debate stage, it was clear — we need a conservative leader who will both stand up to the liberal media AND fight the Washington Cartel.”
Christie also has ridden the issue to prominence in recent days. He complained about moderators in a series of media interviews this week, but the tough-talking governor suggested Republicans need to have thicker skin.
“If you want to be president of the United States, you want to debate Hillary Clinton next fall, you got to be tough enough to deal with that,” he said on Fox News.
Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett said his campaign would distribute a letter outlining the candidates’ demands by the end of Tuesday, although he wasn’t sure how many campaigns would sign. He highlighted Carson’s leading role in the effort: “With all the people with all the years of government experience, it took the outsider to do it.”
Just three debates remains before the Republican primary’s opening contest in Iowa, with the next scheduled for Nov. 10 in Milwaukee, sponsored by Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Several more are on tap after that.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.