On the same August night that Fox News hosts a much-criticized and limited Republican presidential debate in Cleveland, the Union Leader will host a New Hampshire Presidential Forum in the first primary state. It will be televised nationally by C-SPAN, which will also broadcast it on radio.
When Fox News unveiled its controversial debate format, in which the network would exclude nearly half the Republican field, problems emerged almost immediately. Many involved in the process balked at the prospect of Fox effectively positioning itself as an arbiter, determining which GOP candidates would be viable.
But when the network defended its format, the controversy grew. Chris Wallace, for example, defended the role of national polling, a dubious standard with little predictive value, by arguing, "A lot of people would say around the country, we've given Iowa and New Hampshire enough of a role and maybe the nation should play something of a role."
Howard Kurtz added that Fox, not voters, "will help winnow the field."
In states like New Hampshire, home to the first presidential primary, folks tend to take stuff like this personally. We talked yesterday about New Hampshire Republicans urging Fox to change its format to be more inclusive, but as Rachel noted on the show last night, the New Hampshire Union Leader, one of the state's most influential media outlets, is going even further.
Union Leader Publisher Joseph W. McQuaid said yesterday that Fox's plan "isn't just bad for New Hampshire, it's bad for the presidential selection process by limiting the field to only the best-known few with the biggest bankrolls. Why the RNC and, especially, its New Hampshire representative, Steve Duprey, would defend this and be a party to it is baffling."
McQuaid added, "Voters here have an independent streak, and they might well be disposed to vote for a so-called 'also-ran' who didn't meet the Fox criteria but who has spent the time and effort here to meet them and answer their questions."
That's quite a shot across the network's bow.
To be sure, Republican presidential hopefuls will be eager to compete in Fox's August debate. But most, if not all, of these candidates are also eager to curry favor with New Hampshire Republicans
For the Union Leader to organize a forum literally on the same day as Fox's debate in Ohio is the kind of confrontation that shows just how contentious this process is becoming. It also puts the GOP candidates in a slightly uncomfortable position.
For its part, Fox announced last night that it would air a 90-minute forum in the afternoon of August 6, hours before the real debate, as a way of providing airtime for candidates who'll be excluded from the prime-time event.
But now those candidates have another option: do they hang out in Cleveland for Fox's mid-day consolation prize, or do they go to New Hampshire for a competing televised forum?
As Rachel put it on the show last night, "[W]hat just happened tonight is that New Hampshire, the Republican Party, and the Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire have just blown up the Republican Party's plans for how to run its primary process for 2016."
She added, "The Fox News plan for the debates is not going to stand. It is not going to stand in New Hampshire."
Watch this space.