By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Conservative publisher Newsmax said it is going ahead with a planned December 27 Republican presidential "debate" moderated by Donald Trump and featuring candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, despite controversy generated by one of its star attractions.
Christopher Ruddy, the founder and CEO of Newsmax, which operates both a conservative magazine and website, said that because all Republican presidential hopefuls other than Gingrich and Santorum have said they won't participate in the event, the format is expected to be a "conversation" between Trump and the two candidates rather than a full-blown debate.
"It will be a debate, conversational style," Ruddy said in an e-mail to Reuters on Monday.
In a statement posted on its website, Newsmax reported that Gingrich would "join Trump and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum for a conversation about how they plan to defeat President Barack Obama and make American great again."
Ruddy's description of how the format of the event has evolved from a full-scale debate into a smaller-scale conversation is the latest twist in what appears to have been a struggle by Newsmax to cope with the whims and egos of both the mogul invited to host the event and the politicians it invited to participate in it.
Last Friday, Trump was quoted saying that he was unsure if he was going to host the Newsmax event. "I don't know. I have to look into it," he told the "Imus in the Morning" show on Fox Business News. Trump indicated he had not entirely foreclosed the possibility of running for president himself as an independent.
Ruddy indicated that in a subsequent conversation, Trump said he still intended to participate in the December 27 event.
Trump's continuing threats to mount his own presidential bid, have been cited by other Republican hopefuls as reasons for their decisions not to participate in the debate hosted by Newsmax, whose editorial policy generally consists of broadly supporting conservative and Republican causes and candidates.
The website has teamed up with Ion TV, a national broadcaster, and claims to be able to deliver an audience of up to 10 million viewers.
At one point, a person involved in the debate negotiations said candidate Michelle Bachmann, a conservative congresswoman, also told Newsmax she would participate in the event. But the source said she later backed out after Trump declined her repeated pleas for his endorsement.
Other candidates who have declined to participate in the Newsmax event include Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry.
Newsmax claims that the event has been endorsed by an assortment of prominent conservatives, including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
A rapidly growing presence in conservative media circles, Newsmax was founded by Ruddy, a former New York Post journalist who made his reputation reporting on conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Vincent Foster, an aide to former President Bill Clinton.
A minority owner of Newsmax is Richard Mellon Scaife, a controversial Pittsburgh philanthropist who is a long-time supporter of conservative causes.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball)