Byron York

One key question for the RNC is viewership. If it produced some of the Republican debates itself, and offered them to all outlets, would the total viewership be as high as a debate on cable news? That's something officials really haven't scoped out yet.

"There's no point in having a debate if no one watches," says Fleischer. "We want to take the debates back, but we don't want to keep them to ourselves."

All this thinking predates the controversy over the NBC and CNN Clinton documentaries. The RNC's reform report, released in March by the so-called Growth and Opportunity Project, contained one tantalizing hint about future plans. "We are intrigued," the report said, "with the suggestion some have made for an organization to be formed that can host robust, vigorous, tough and professional debates."

Still, it's not clear whether the RNC will actually go ahead with such a momentous change. And even if it does, some observers think the party won't have the power to force candidates into its debates. But at the 2012 convention, the RNC gave itself the authority to make rules changes in mid-cycle. Now, if it wants to create a rule to, say, penalize candidates who buck the debate schedule, it can. And if it does, that will be a sign the RNC is serious about changing the debate system.

Spicer says any changes are still in "discussion mode" at the moment. But the party fully intends to change its debate structure. The reason goes beyond Republicans' belief that holding 20-plus debates, as in 2011-2012, provides too much opportunity for gaffes and intra-party bloodletting. It also stems from GOP dissatisfaction with debates in which the moderators don't seem to understand the premises of modern conservatism and engage in hostile or clueless questioning -- or out-of-the-blue provocations like former Clinton operative George Stephanopoulos' queries about contraception at a 2012 debate in New Hampshire.

Just what the RNC will do is not yet clear. But it is serious. Look for real change to occur before Republican presidential candidates meet again.


Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner