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Long before CNBC moderators came under fire from conservatives for their questions during the latest presidential nomination face-off, the Republican debate process was a mess.

From the get go, there's been a structural problem. A historically crowded field has meant that networks running each event face a dilemma: either allow everybody to participate in a massive battle royale in which candidates get only a few minutes of speaking time, or use some sort of criteria to whittle down the candidates before voters have even had a chance to cast a single vote.

So, thus far, they've decided to split the difference. That's how viewers have been treated to the spectacle of having an undercard or "kiddie debate" of the lower-polling candidates and then a main event of candidates who are doing better in surveys.

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