In a move drawn from the Democratic National Committee's 2008 playbook, the Republican National Committee is holding separate conference calls with potential GOP presidential campaigns to find out whether an agreement can be reached on the timing and frequency of debates, according to an RNC memo obtained exclusively by Fox News.
"With some debates already scheduled less than five weeks from now, we know it is important to move quickly to determine what role, if any, the potential candidates would like the RNC to play in the debate structure, format and timing," RNC Chief of Staff Jeff Larson wrote in a letter sent this week to various potential Republican candidates.
The process of deciding whether to officially sanction debates is part of the committee's active effort under the leadership of Chairman Reince Priebus to assert its influence and increase organization within the party.
"A similar effort to this was done successfully by the DNC in 2008, and I think welcomed by the campaigns," wrote Larson. "We know there is not much we can do unless we get the buy-in from most of you on moving forward. For that reason we wanted to get on the phone with you and have a discussion about your thoughts on these ideas."
The RNC Executive Committee voted last week to establish the Committee on Presidential Debates after aides to 2012 hopefuls expressed significant concerns about the debate calendar; media outlets began teaming up with various Republican organizations as early as last year to schedule the 2011 presidential debates, resulting in an ad hoc debate calendar featuring politicians who have yet to officially declare their candidacy.
On May 5, Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party are set to kick off the 2012 primary season with the first major debate of the election cycle, although Larson indicated in the memo that "the Committee has determined the best start date might be later than May."
Candidates might have competing interests when it comes to the timing of debates; an early entry in the debate schedule might benefit one candidate while hindering another. One source familiar with the RNC outreach said there's a fair chance the sanctioning committee, after holding initial meetings over the next couple of weeks, will conclude that they are unable to agree on a plan and scrap the idea of sanctioning debates.
Already on Wednesday, The Reagan Foundation, along with partners NBC News and Politico, announced they are rescheduling the May debate to September. "Although there will be a long and impressive list of Republican candidates who eventually take the field, too few have made the commitment thus far for a debate to be worthwhile in early May," said John Heubusch, the Reagan Foundation's executive director in a statement.
In addition to the start date of debates, Larson said in the memo that the committee is also concerned about their frequency.
"The recommendation we'd offer from the Committee is for there to be no more than two debates per month. It takes at least three days for a campaign to get to an event, prepare for the debate and then participate in the debate. If the debate schedule continues to escalate moving forward there could be 50-70 debates for the candidates."
The Committee on Presidential Debates is headed by Indiana committeeman Jim Bopp of Indiana, who has a background in campaign finance and election law. Priebus chose Bopp, Larson, and Wisconsin's Steve King to set up separate conference calls with the inner circles of potential candidates to "continue the discussion about the RNC's role in debates," in particular whether "we can reach some consensus on is when the debates might start and the frequency of debates."
Committee members include: Linda Ackerman (California), Congressman Dick Armey (Texas), Al Cardenas (Florida), Maria Cino (Virginia), Jo Ann Davidson (Ohio), Mike Duncan (Kentucky), Mike Grebe (Wisconsin), Debbie Joslin (Alaska), Tom Minnery (Colorado), and Solomon Yue (Oregon).