By Steve Holland
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (Reuters) - Republican Party leaders are struggling to figure out who among their bounty of 2016 candidates deserve to take the stage when U.S. presidential debates kick off in August or, more importantly, who will not make the cut.
"It's a very tough question," acknowledged Sean Spicer, senior strategist at the Republican National Committee, in a session with reporters on Friday at the RNC's spring meeting.
With 16 or more candidates potentially competing, Republicans believe they have a strong field from which to choose a nominee to battle the Democrats' choice in the November 2016 election.
But many party officials believe the maximum number that can fit on the debate stage and fully participate is 10 or 12.
They have done analyses from past debates showing that in a 90-minute debate with 10 people on stage, each candidate gets only about four and a half minutes of speaking time.
Trying to winnow down the field, though, could set off a volcanic eruption from those left out. Behind the scenes, officials have considered various criteria to qualify for debates, such as poll numbers or fundraising, but have come to no conclusions.
Republican officials say ultimately the decision is up to the television networks that will moderate and broadcast each debate, but the party will provide plenty of input.
The problem might be easier to resolve if they did not have some compelling figures currently at the bottom of the heap in polls, like former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, the only woman who would be on stage.
"Sex should not be one of the criteria that the committee uses and I'm quite confident I'll be on the debate stage," Fiorina told reporters.
Seemingly at risk of exclusion is former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who did well in the 2012 primaries but may not be as big a player this time.
Santorum told reporters he is concerned about "any attempt to squeeze the field down to sort of the preferred group," and said he had asked the RNC to consider dividing the field into two debates to let everyone get their chance. The idea does not seem to be getting any traction.
Others seen as at risk of not making it are former New York Governor George Pataki, New York real estate mogul Donald Trump and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
Six Republicans have formally entered the race so far, while others are viewed as likely to get in soon. The first Republican presidential debate, to be broadcast by Fox News, is scheduled for August in Cleveland.
(Editing by John Whitesides)