Republican Campaigns Plan to Change Debates, Face Hurdles

republican debate
The podiums, all lined up for the Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Updated | There's an old saying about what happens when you give a mouse a cookie: The demanding rodent then wants milk, a straw, a napkin, a mirror to avoid a milk moustache... You get the idea.

After negotiating format changes to the CNBC Republican debate last week, the GOP's presidential candidates have even more demands for the upcoming debates.

The campaigns want more control over screen graphics (Jeb Bush's campaign complained that CNBC misrepresented his accomplishments by showing a graphic that emphasized his work in private finance over his career as a governor), more leverage in determining the number of questions each candidate receives (several have complained that they don't get enough speaking time), the institution of a two-hour time limit and the inclusion of opening and closing statements.

Over the weekend, top staffers from all but one of the campaigns (Carly Fiorina didn't send a representative) met in a hotel conference room in Virginia and agreed to take over the debate negotiating process. The Sunday night meeting effectively pushed the Republican National Committee out of the loop. The RNC had previously sought to control the primaries more than it did in 2012, when a long debate season forced eventual nominee Mitt Romney to shift farther to the right and open himself to criticism.

Since the Sunday meeting, the RNC has not commented directly on the behind-the-scenes planning from its candidates. The campaign representatives did not formally adopt an agenda in writing but agreed in principle to take control of negotiations with the networks during a discussion that was moderated by Ben Ginsberg, a high-profile Republican election attorney with ties to the RNC.

The next debate, to be held on November 10 and broadcast on the Fox Business Channel, has been advertised as a correction of a flawed CNBC debate.

With anti-establishment candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson leading in the polls, the RNC may have lost the reins, even though it will still play a role in organizing the logistics for future debates.

"A couple of us are the ones that are generating the ratings for these debates—if we don't come, that's a big bargaining chip," top Carson aide Barry Bennett told NBC. Carson's campaign has pushed for opening statements as long as five minutes, which would leave little time for the back-and-forth banter that has dominated the debates so far.

Trump and Carson both threatened to boycott the CNBC debate if their demands for a two-hour time limit weren't met. During the debate, Trump heralded the format change as an example of his negotiating acumen, saying that the discussions with CNBC's organizers showed that he would be able to conduct diplomacy with Iran.

Trump clashed with the moderators during the debate. Amid constant interruptions and flaring tensions between the dais and the table, it often appeared that no one understood the rules. The RNC was so outraged at the conduct of CNBC's moderators that chairman Reince Priebus wrote a letter to the network's brass accusing them of trying to sabotage the party's candidates with embarrassing questions. In a statement, NBC News promised to work with the Republican party to address Priebus's concerns but did not mention the candidates' demands.

"I think there's general agreement that the last debate was a farce and that something needs to be done about it," Bennett said of the CNBC event.

Rival campaigns have pushed for leverage over both the networks and the RNC, sometimes disagreeing with one another. The party canceled a planned debate on NBC News Telemundo, the network's Spanish language outlet, which was scheduled for February. After Jeb Bush's campaign pressured the RNC to reinstate the debate (Bush has a more centrist immigration policy than most of the other candidates), Trump's campaign manager threatened another boycott.

Some of the format changes, such as cutting the time down, are welcome ideas. Condemning the various moderators (going all the way back to Megyn Kelly), accusing networks of pushing "gotcha" questions and generally blaming the "liberal media" for the woes of the political process are all methods to shore up the anti-establishment, anti-media message that the leading candidates have expressed.

Monday evening The Washington Post reported that Donald Trump's campaign had determined to negotiate directly with the television networks, without consulting the other candidates. According to the story, Trump's plans to operate independently will include rejecting a formal letter from the campaigns to television network hosts.

"@trump_world: "The MAN with a PLAN! Go Trump! We got your back!" DonaldTrump #MakeAmericaGreatAgain #Trump2016"

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 2, 2015

This story has been updated to include Donald Trump's decision to negotiate independently with the networks.