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GOP campaigns craft letter to networks with debate format changes

GOP presidential campaign aides will finalize a letter to networks outlining potential changes to debate format.

The debate over debates

Nov. 2, 201513:26

Working in unison to seize control of the debate process, top aides to the Republican candidates are hammering out final details of a letter they'll send to the television networks scheduled to host the remaining GOP primary debates. The letter outlines a series of demands — touching on everything from how the moderators discuss bathroom breaks to the camera angles and graphics — and marks candidates' most serious effort to wrest control of the debate process from the Republican National Committee, just days before the next debate, hosted by Fox Business Network on Nov. 10. 

"The answers you provide to these questions are part of a process that each campaign will use to determine whether its candidate will participate in your debate," an early draft of the letter reads.

The letter was composed at a highly unusual inter-campaign meeting Sunday night marked by a code name — attendees told the host hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, they were there for a "family dinner" — and attended by all but one of the 15 presidential campaigns. The so-called "family," made up of many high-ranked campaign officials, got along surprisingly well in the more-than two hour meeting, sources from four campaigns told NBC News.

The unprecedented meeting came after long-simmering frustration at the debate process came to a boil following last week’s CNBC debate, when many candidates argued that the process was unfair. Despite the RNC's attempt to control the process they'd originally brokered — even appointing a point person this weekend to try and calm discontent — it’s clear the campaigns are set on taking key matters into their own hands. 

RELATED: Republican campaigns lay out their debate demands

The letter put together after Sunday's meeting lists a series of criteria the campaigns seem keen on enforcing in the debates, including opening and closing statements of 30 seconds each and a two-hour time limit on all debates. According to the first draft of the letter circulated Monday — which hasn't yet been signed off on by the campaigns — the candidates also want to eliminate lightning rounds "because of their frivolousness or 'gotcha' nature, or in some cases both."

The candidates also have some director's notes, too: The letter makes specific demands about the cameras angles, shots, and graphics in the televised debates. The letter asks networks to vow not to show reaction shots of the audience or moderators, describe how far the bathrooms are (or show an empty podium after a break), or use shots of candidates' notes. The campaigns also want to pre-approve the graphics and bios used in the broadcasts.

Though it is not finalized, the current demands represent an unprecedented level of candidate control in the debate process. The campaign teams have until Thursday to send in edits on letter before a final version is distributed to the networks with scheduled debates. 

“I think there’s general agreement that the last debate was a farce and that something needs to be done about it,” front-runner Ben Carson said Sunday night about the meeting his campaign manager Barry Bennett helped broker in D.C. 

Bennett said the campaigns all agreed to circulate a questionnaire to the networks hosting the debates asking for details on their planned formats, the moderators, how long the debate will go, and other details. The campaigns plan to hold a conference call prior to each debate to hammer out the details on a case-by-case basis, during which Bennett said he expects other issues of contention — like whether to hold an undercard debate, and how to get more candidates involved in the main debate — to be ironed out.

Of the 14 present campaigns, only Carly Fiorina’s team was absent, citing logistical conflicts.

Still undecided is how the candidates will handle the scheduled debate hosted by NBC News and Telemundo, which the Republican National Committee suspended in the wake of the CNBC debate, a sister network of NBC News and MSNBC. Sources told NBC News that representatives from Jeb Bush’s team — which is making a big play for Latino voters — fought to reinstate the Telemundo as a debate sponsor, while the Trump campaign and other staffers opposed it, arguing it wouldn’t hurt the party’s chance with Latino voters.

RELATED: Debating the debate format

Lindsey Graham campaign manager Christian Ferry called the Republican presidential campaigns dinner meeting “an extremely productive evening.”

There is a starting point for the GOP operatives, “we agreed that we would like the campaigns to negotiate with the networks on format going forward,” Ferry said and “continue to have the RNC help with logistics.”

If the networks don’t agree to the campaigns’ demands, Bennett said some of the more popular campaigns would consider boycotting.

“A couple of us are the ones that are generating the ratings for these debates — if we don’t come that’s a big bargaining chip,” he said.