"While we were playing footsie debating each other 22 times, they were spending $100 million on technology," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said last week, referring to his party's rigorous debate schedule in the 2012 GOP presidential primary season. The last campaign, many Republican insiders said during a recent RNC meeting, had too many debates, the result of which was a GOP arguing with itself while Democrats prepared the way for Barack Obama's victory.
There's no doubt the Republican debates produced many damaging moments for the party. There was Mitt Romney's $10,000 bet offer, which helped cement his image as an out-of-touch rich guy. There were any number of gaffes from Rick Perry, culminating in Perry's painful-to-watch "Oops" moment. There was Michele Bachmann's HPV vaccine blunder. There were bare-knuckle fights over immigration. And there was warfare between Romney and Newt Gingrich, in which Gingrich prevailed in South Carolina only to be flattened by Romney in Florida. By the end, there was a lot of blood on the floor.
Now a panel of GOP veterans appointed by Priebus is studying what changes should be made next time around. They're focusing on three questions: 1) At what point in the campaign should debates begin; 2) How many debates should be held; and 3) Who should conduct them.
The first debate of the 2012 GOP race was originally scheduled for April 2011. It was postponed, and the debates actually started a little later, but many Republicans believe that was still way too early. "With all the demands on candidates, the importance of grassroots campaigning and meeting voters, are you well served by having a debate process begin that early?" asks Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman who is part of the RNC group reviewing debate policy.
Many Republicans believe the answer is no; they would like to see no debates until at least fall, before the first caucuses and primaries. (They also hope to see those caucuses and primaries start later than the first week of January, which has been the case in the last two campaigns.)
Once the debating starts, how many should there be? "There is a sense that 20 debates might be a tad too many," says Fleischer. Although Fleischer calls debates a "vital part of the process" and says the group seeks to have "a healthy, significant number of debates," some party officials would like to see the number cut in half.
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