CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — More than 50 prominent Republicans in New Hampshire want Fox News to change the format of its Aug. 6 presidential debate so every candidate can participate.
Fox plans to restrict the first scheduled GOP debate to the top 10 candidates, based on polling averages from the five most recent national public opinion surveys. But the field could approach 20 candidates, posing logistical challenges as TV networks and the party decide how the debates should unfold.
In a letter to the heads of Fox News and the Republican National Committee, the New Hampshire group suggested that Fox split the debate into two panels. Three of the top six candidates would be on one panel, and the other top three contenders would be on the second one. The remaining contenders would be assigned randomly to a panel. The group suggested broadcasting the two panels back-to-back or on consecutive nights.
Fox offered a different solution Wednesday, announcing it would give airtime to candidates who don't make the top 10.
The network said candidates who do not qualify for the primetime debate will be invited to participate in a 90-minute forum to be aired during the afternoon of Aug. 6.
"Our intention has always been to provide coverage to the wide field of Republican candidates," Fox News' Executive Vice President of News Editorial Michael Clemente said.
New Hampshire hosts the first presidential primary contest, and in their letter the Republicans say the responsibility to "closely examine and winnow the field of candidates" belongs to voters in the early primary and caucus states. "It is not in the electorate's interest to have TV debate criteria supplant this solemn duty," the letter says.
Steve Duprey, chairman of the national Republican Party's debate committee, said the ideas outlined in the letter were discussed earlier with networks holding the debates. The party cannot tell networks how to run the debates but has suggested they look at early state polling to determine who is on stage, he said.
"There is no perfect solution," said Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican. He said the RNC has suggested that news outlets provide other means for candidates who don't make the cut to get airtime.
While the RNC has been working closely with networks in recent months, the networks are free to organize the debates as they wish.
For example, the second GOP presidential debate, set to be hosted by CNN in September, will divide its event into two parts. One will have the 10 highest polling candidates. The other will have remaining candidates who register at 1 percent, at minimum, in public polling.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus did not address the two-panel format suggested for the Fox debate when he responded to a question about it. He said only, "We are very pleased that both CNN and Fox will give all candidates over one percent significant exposure."
The New Hampshire Republicans who want everyone in say that relying on early polling to determine debate participants will give an unfair advantage to candidates who are better known or have raised more money.
The first televised debate of the 2016 campaign should place all candidates on an even footing and let them make their case directly to voters and viewers, according to the letter, signed by 56 Republicans. They include two former governors, nine state senators and a number of former RNC delegates and state party leaders.
So far, 11 major candidates are running for the Republican nomination and decisions are coming from more. Altogether, 12 GOP presidential debates are planned from August to March.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report from Washington.