Mark J. Terrill / AP

Debate disarray: Republicans at odds over rules ... and who makes them

Analysis: Candidates jockey for position with RNC in attempt to capitalize on dissatisfaction over CNBC event

Four Republican presidential candidates announced Monday that they wouldn’t sign a joint letter to television networks prescribing the formats of future debates, leaving the campaigns, the networks and the Republican National Committee (RNC) all making claims on Tuesday that they were in control of the process.

Representatives from most of the GOP campaigns met in Washington, D.C., Sunday night with veteran Republican lawyer Ben Ginsburg — but pointedly without anyone from the RNC, which some of the campaigns have blamed for what they saw as a poorly run debate with overly hostile moderators last week. Initial reports were that those assembled Sunday had agreed on a set of demands for future debates — including restrictions on the types of questions, the length of responses and camera angles — but by early Monday, even before a draft of the joint letter circulated, consensus turned to controversy.

As of late Tuesday, MSNBC was reporting that none of the GOP campaigns had officially signed the letter.

Donald Trump was the first to announce that he would not be a signatory, trading on his personae as a dealmaker to say he’d negotiate his own TV agreementsJohn Kasich and Chris Christie soon followed, each implying that if candidates couldn’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

And Carly Fiorina, who did not send a representative to the Sunday meetup, essentially said she was too busy on the campaign trail to worry about televised debates.

The first defectors are probably not a purely random assortment. Trump is arguably the most television-savvy of the GOP hopefuls, and has used the medium to his advantage so far. Kasich, Christie and Fiorina — all polling somewhere in the middle of the pack, none household names outside Republican circles — likely need debates for the free media exposure they offer.

The apparent leaders of the push for debate changes likely have a stake that extends beyond the academic. Ben Carson, who is reported to have spearheaded this revolt, is the current frontrunner, and has vaulted to his spot atop the polls and the small-donor fundraising tallies with a heavy reliance on email, and on Facebook and other social media. Carson even went so far as to suggest that the GOP didn’t need the cable networks and could stream debates on YouTube.

But by most assessments, Carson’s laconic style has not fared well in the previous debates. Carson also has expressed some of the most resentment over being challenged on policy and personal issues by debate moderators. As the current leader, the campaign likely sees advantages to limiting its candidate’s exposure in this kind of forum.

The other two candidates seen as big backers of the anti-RNC letter, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham, have languished at the bottom of most public opinion surveys, relegating them to “undercard” debates, which are aired earlier and have garnered far smaller television audiences.

The shake-up has left the three candidates that follow Carson and Trump in most polls — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush — feeling their way toward some middle ground, with Cruz arguing that only registered Republicans should be allowed to moderate Republican debates, and all three continuing to complain about last week’s CNBC-sponsored event.

And the seeming lack of consensus even has some reportedly whispering that the RNC should reassert its role in organizing the debates. For its part, the party has overhauled its debate team, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, said Monday, “The truth is, we're involved, we're in control.”

Priebus said the national party still sets the calendar and sanctions the debates, and if candidates want change, they should go through the RNC because the party had “the leverage to make that happen.”

Anchors at Fox News also expressed their dissatisfaction with the candidates’ reported demands. News anchor Shep Smith commented Monday afternoon on the uprising: “These from men and women who want to be president.” And Megyn Kelly, who moderated a previous GOP debate, was dripping with sarcasm when she referenced some of the specific stipulations in the draft letter Monday night, saying on air, “Oh, yeah, that’s gonna happen.”

But if there is something the RNC and the upstart campaigns seem to agree on, it is that the next debate, scheduled for Nov. 10 in Milwaukee and sponsored by the Fox Business Network, will go ahead as planned, and without any changes motivated by candidate complaints — at least not officially.

Though Fox Business said it had not consulted with the RNC or any of the campaigns, the channel did announce over the weekend that candidates would be given more time to answer — 90 seconds for initial questions and 60 seconds for rebuttals. That’s 30 seconds more for each than was the designated limit in prior debates.

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