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GOP field to push for debate changes

Members of many GOP campaigns met behind closed doors Sunday, and said they would present changes to debate hosts soon

Republican presidential candidates have agreed on a series of demands giving them greater control of debates, as the GOP's frustrated 2016 class works to inject changes into the nominating process.

They are attempting to wrestle command from the Republican National Committee (RNC) and media hosts.

Representatives from more than a dozen campaigns met behind closed doors for nearly two hours Sunday night in suburban Washington, a meeting that was not expected to yield many results given the competing interests of several candidates. Yet they emerged having agreed to several changes to be outlined in a letter to debate hosts in the coming days.

They include largely bypassing the RNC in coordinating with network hosts, mandatory opening and closing statements, an equal number of questions for the candidates, and preapproval of on-screen graphics, according to Ben Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett, who hosted the meeting.

While the campaigns agreed to the changes in principle Sunday night, the media companies that host the debates are under no obligation to adopt them. Bennett suggested that campaigns could boycott debates to get their way.

"The only leverage we have is to not come," he said. According to the New York Times, Bennett suggested that Twitter, Google, YouTube or Facebook could live-stream a debate on a feed the networks could share.

While organizers of the meeting were not including the RNC, the party has been in regular communication with campaigns about their concerns.

Shortly before the meeting, the RNC appointed Sean Cairncross, the committee's chief operating officer, to take the lead in negotiating with the networks. It's unclear, however, what role he'll play should the campaigns get their way.

The GOP's most recent debate, moderated by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday night, drew criticism from campaigns and GOP officials alike.

The CNBC debate was supposed to be devoted to discussing the candidates' views on how to improve the U.S. economy but frequently strayed from that theme and the moderators struggled to maintain control as the candidates bickered.

Afterward, some candidates complained that the questions were not substantive enough. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were among those candidates who objected to questions during the debate. Christie wondered aloud why they were being asked about Fantasy Football competition when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters were killing people in the Middle East.

Other in the field wanted more airtime or the chance to deliver opening and closing statements.

On Friday, GOP chairman Reince Priebus announced the suspension of a partnership with NBC News, the parent company of CNBC, and its properties on a debate set for February, but that wasn't enough to satisfy the frustrated campaigns.

"While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of 'gotcha' questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone and designed to embarrass our candidates," Priebus wrote.

The pushback comes despite a high-profile effort by the Republican National Committee to improve the debate process going into the 2016 election season. The party said the 2012 debate schedule promoted too much fighting among candidates, so for 2016, the RNC dramatically reduced the number of debates for this election and played a leading role in coordinating network hosts and even moderators, in some cases.

Three debates remain before the first nomination contest, the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1; the next one is scheduled for Nov. 10 in Milwaukee, which Fox Business Network will host. The RNC has sanctioned five debates after the caucuses.

Wire services

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