GOP confab: A deal to tweak debate system, not blow it up

strong>ALEXANDRIA, Va. — When the Republican presidential campaigns reserved a meeting room at the Hilton Hotel here, they did so under the name "Family Dinner." That suggests a bit more unity than actually exists among a bunch of highly-competitive political operatives. But most agree that after the debacle in Boulder, the present GOP debate system needs to change. In recent days, there has even been talk of a far-reaching overhaul. But the changes discussed at the gathering here Sunday night are more fixes to the system rather than fundamental restructuring.

There is one point of solid consensus: The Republican National Committee has exercised too much control over the debates. "We had no input," Ben Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett said before the meeting. "We were told what the schedule was and who the hosts were." Bennett noted that the next debate, in Milwaukee, is just nine days away, and the campaigns have not yet been given basic information on its format. "That's unacceptable," Bennett said.

If there was any main theme to the meeting here Sunday night, it was: Campaigns, not the RNC, should work with the networks to shape the format of debates. No more top-down directives from the RNC. The campaigns welcomed news, which broke just before the meeting, that RNC chief Reince Priebus had removed key aide Sean Spicer from debate management and replaced Spicer with another RNC official, Sean Cairncross. But the problem, in the campaigns' view, is too much RNC control of all aspects of the debate, not any one RNC aide.

So what are they going to do about it? After the meeting, top Bobby Jindal adviser Gail Gitcho read out the action items from her meeting notes:

1) Campaigns will talk directly to network sponsors with respect to format.

2) The RNC will do logistics.

3) Opening and closing statements of 30 seconds minimum.

4) Equal number of questions.

5) Institute a process in which campaigns receive information from networks in a timely manner.

Along with Gitcho, other participants stressed the importance of the first item. "We're going to negotiate directly with the sponsors [networks] about format," Bennett told reporters after the meeting. "We all get to decide whether we're going or not, so we'll all get some say into the format. We'll do a group conference call for every debate sponsor with every campaign."

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