The Republican National Committee on Friday asked the likely presidential candidates if they would be willing to participate in debates where the central committee picked the format, content and even the moderators in exchange for the White House hopefuls' help digging the party out of its $21 million debt.
In a letter, two RNC officials gauged support for seven debates that would essentially give the party's stamp of approval to monthly meetings between August and February. The process would give the candidates an excuse to skip any potentially hostile debates.
Four years ago, the burgeoning number of debates and forums prompted many of the candidates to adopt a similar strategy.
"We think we all agree the objective of the RNC-sanctioned debates would be to provide a fair and impartial forum for the Republican candidates to educate and inform voters about their candidates in a series of candidate forums which are party and grassroots-driven rather than media driven," RNC committee member James Bopp and RNC chief of staff Jeff Larson wrote in a one-page memo.
In exchange for reducing the power of news organizations that traditionally put on primary debates to pick the moderator, the candidates would have to pitch in to help pay down the sizeable debt left behind by former RNC chairman Michael Steele. Although Republicans made great gains in November's midterm elections, it left the central party at a disadvantage heading into 2012's presidential bid.
The RNC traditionally hands a national campaign over to its eventual nominee but instead is trying to purge a massive debt before the party picks a challenger to President Barack Obama. GOP fundraisers have weighed all options; one member even suggested selling broadcast rights to the debates.
Already, the first debate of the nominating contest was canceled. Politico and NBC News had planned a May 2 debate at the Reagan Library in California; that has been rescheduled to September.
Fox News Channel still has on its schedule a May 5 debate in South Carolina, the state that hosts the South's first nominating contest.
The GOP presidential field is slower to start campaigning than four years ago. Only Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has filed his paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is in the early stages of putting together a campaign.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, here in Las Vegas to address the Republican Jewish Coalition on Saturday, is expected to announce the start of his second presidential bid in the coming weeks.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is still working with his state legislature on a budget and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is weighing a bid.
Others, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have said they will not be rushed into the race by media pressure.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is expected to take steps in June, although a top aide said the debate schedule could change that thinking.
The letter about the RNC-backed debates was first reported on Politico's website.