Finally, who conducts the debates? The last time around, some conservatives expressed anger about what they saw as liberal journalists subjecting GOP candidates to hostile questioning. "The Republicans have let this become the reality show of presidential politics," said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina GOP, during that state's primary week in January 2012. "We've let it be driven it by people who don't like us. ... For that hour and a half of earned media, we have let the drive-by shooting of the liberal media come after our Republican candidates unfettered."
Dawson wasn't alone. Many Republicans scratched their heads during a New Hampshire debate in which ABC's George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton operative, grilled Romney on the topic of contraception. Where did that come from? Later, when Democrats sought to make contraception a campaign issue, Republicans saw Stephanopoulos' questions as a partisan preview of what was to come.
So who should conduct the debates in 2016? "That's a tricky question," says Fleischer. "Putting on a proper live debate is no simple matter, and usually the people who are good at it are the networks or the cables. So it's something we've got to work through and talk through, to figure out how the debates are going to be reflective of what a Republican primary voter thinks." In the end, the party might decide to assign a few debates to organizations that did not conduct them in 2012.
National party officials can't just dictate changes; state parties will have a lot to say about it, too. But the bottom line is that 2016 will likely have fewer Republican debates, starting later, with perhaps some originating outside what Matt Drudge calls ABCCBSNBCFOXCNNMSNBC.
There will still be plenty of fighting. And Republican officials point out that Democrats, too, are likely to have a wide-open race in 2016, with a field that includes some candidates -- remember Al Sharpton and Mike Gravel? -- who won't exactly bring glory to the Democratic Party.
That will be their problem. For Republicans, there is a real determination to avoid the exhausting and rocky road the candidates traveled in 2012.
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