A group of high-profile New Hampshire Republicans wrote an open letter to Fox News and the Republican National Committee on Wednesday asking them to make their upcoming Aug. 6 presidential debate more inclusive – and not restrict the forum to just 10 members of the massive, emerging field.
The letter, addressed to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and Fox News President Roger Ailes notes that New Hampshire, as the first-in-the-nation primary state, plays an important role in helping to select the presidential nominee. “Historically, it has been the responsibility of early primary and caucus states to closely examine and winnow the field of candidates, and it is not in the electorate’s interest to have TV debate criteria supplant this solemn duty,” says the letter. “To do so would undermine the very nature of our process and the valuable service that states like New Hampshire provide to voters across the country.”
The document was signed by more than 50 Republican activists and current and former lawmakers, including former Govs. Craig Benson and Steve Merrill, sitting state Senate president Chuck Morse and state Senate majority leader Jeb Bradley.
Fox News recently announced that it would allow the top 10 candidates into the first GOP debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6 based on an average of the five most recent national polls.
That means some very big names wouldn't make the cut. Based on current polling, candidates in the danger zone include former Pennsylvania senator and onetime 2012 presidential front-runner Rick Santorum; Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana; Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; former Gov. George Pataki of New York; and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Graham's campaign manager Christian Ferry on Wednesday afternoon released a statement saying he was grateful that the New Hampshire leaders wrote Fox and the RNC – and also called on the two entities to change the debate criteria.
“A reliance on national polling to determine who participates in debates steals the traditional role of the early primary states,” said Ferry. He added, "We hope media outlets and the RNC will heed the advice of leaders in New Hampshire and other early primary states and revise their debate criteria so voters, rather than national polls, make determinations about who our nominee for president will be."
Those who signed the letter note the logistical challenges of dealing with so many candidates but argue the Fox News rules are “unnecessarily narrow and risk eliminating potentially viable candidates based on unreliable polling ...” It adds that the margin of error between the 10th candidate and those who don’t qualify will likely be statistically insignificant.
Fox News, which did not immediately return a request for comment about the letter, previously noted the network would provide additional coverage and air time on debate day for those candidates who do not make the top 10. The RNC also did not immediately respond to msnbc about the letter.
Late Wednesday, Fox News elaborated on its plans for additional coverage, announcing it would hold a candidate forum on the afternoon of Aug. 6 for those candidates who don't make the cut, according to the Associated Press. The New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper also announced Wednesday its plans for a candidate forum on the same night as the Fox debate.
Other networks are also trying to deal with the GOP’s unusually large and growing field, with as many as 18 hopefuls eyeing a run. CNN is holding a debate on Sept. 16. Unlike Fox, CNN will divide the debate in two parts, one with candidates who rank in the top 10 based on polling and another for candidates who garner at least 1% support in the polls but are ranked outside the top 10.
In the letter, the New Hampshire Republicans pitched an idea – similar to CNN’s -- for a new debate format. They propose separating the debate into two panels that appear back to back, either on the same night or on consecutive nights. The top six candidates—based on public polls—would be randomly split into the two panels. Then, the remaining candidates would be randomly divided between the two panels.
MSNBC recently asked debate experts to propose alternatives to make the Q&As more inclusive and meaningful to voters. Here’s what they had to say.