CSPAN GOP Candidate Forum: First Debate or Just Another Cattle Call?

A little over a month ago the New Hampshire Republican Party leadership complained very loudly about the Fox News debate qualification standards and their alleged effect on early-state campaigns. In a sort of mouse-that-roared gesture, the state’s dominant and very conservative newspaper, the Union-Leader, took the additional step of announcing it would hold a candidate forum, to be televised by CSPAN, on the very evening of the Fox Debate.

Since then, as I predicted, other early states have gotten in on the act, and regional newspapers in Iowa (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) and South Carolina (the Charleston Post & Courier) are cosponsoring the “forum” with the Union-Leader. But organizers have also moved the event from August 6 to August 3 to avoid a direct conflict with Fox (perhaps because they were afraid they’d get shut out now that Fox is holding it’s own “kiddie pool” forum for candidates who don’t make the debate cut). According to The Hill‘s Jonathan Easley, all 17 presidential wannabes have been invited, and so far nine have accepted. Conspicuously missing so far are top-tier candidates Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, plus current national poll leader Donald Trump, and also Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.

The 64k question about this “forum” is whether it’s in danger of being deemed an “unsanctioned debate” by the RNC, which would mean participants would be barred from sanctioned debates right on through to the end of the primary process. Easley doesn’t directly address that rather important issue, but does say this:

The C-SPAN forum will be hosted by WGIR radio’s Jack Heath, who hosts the “New Hampshire Today” show. The candidates will take turns answering questions in five minute segments.

The idea, I’d guess, is to create something more debate-y than a cattle call where candidates make serial speeches, but to fall somewhere short of a formal debate with candidates able to address each other.

The regional newspaper sponsorship may boost viewership in IA and SC above the usual CSPAN numbers–which don’t come anywhere close to Fox’s, especially when it comes to conservatives–and the NH location could make it a genuinely big deal there. But I’m guessing it will wind up being a survival strategy for those in danger of getting left off the stage in Cleveland, and either a rehearsal or an easy “no thanks” for the first-tier candidates.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.