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The debate over presidential debates

at 06:30 AM ET, 04/01/2011

The Republican National Committee has convened a task force to study the possibility of sanctioning a handful of debates during the 2012 presidential primary season, in an attempt to streamline a process that is putting considerable strain on candidates as they ponder when and where to appear on stage together.

The RNC Committee on Presidential Debates will be led by Indiana Republican National Committeeman Jim Bopp and includes former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, former Florida state party chairman Al Cardenas and former Texas congressman Dick Armey.

“The Committee on Presidential Debates will help ensure that we have a strong nominating process and put us in an even better position to make Barack Obama a one-term president,” said RNC Chair Reince Priebus in announcing the group.

The news of the committee’s formation comes just days after NBC and Politico pushed back a planned May 2 debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in California to Sept. 14 due to the lack of announced candidates in the race.

Despite that postponement, there are six debates — including the NBC/Politico one — on the 2011 calendar. The others are a May 5 gathering in South Carolina, one June 7 in New Hampshire, an August debate in Iowa just days before the big Ames straw poll and two Florida debates in September and October.

It's not clear how the RNC committee would navigate the debates already on the calendar, whether picking from among those gatherings or setting up new dates. And sources familiar with the committee warn that it may end up not moving forward on sanctioning debates at all. (The idea of selling broadcast rights to the RNC debates, which was first reported by CNN, seems like a long shot.)

The goal of the RNC sanctioning a handful of debates is simple: allow candidates already pressed for time to spend less of it on stages to be poked and prodded by the national media, and more of it courting actual voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. (Unstated but no less important is that the candidates would also have more time to raise money, rather than traveling the country to appear at various and sundry debates.)

In 2008, the Democratic and Republican presidential primary fights featured no fewer than 12 debates — a grueling process that went from double-digit candidate free-for-alls at the start to one-on-one showdowns between Obama and Hillary Clinton by the end.

The idea of the RNC trying to simplify the debate process will almost certainly be welcomed by the first-tier candidates who don’t relish the prospect of fighting off attacks from long-shot rivals with whom they must share a stage.

On the other hand, a reduction in debates could well stifle the emergence of a lesser-known but talented candidate in a crowded field with no clear favorite. In 2008, the under-funded Mike Huckabee, a little known former Arkansas governor at the start of the primary process, used the debates as a showcase for his charisma and social conservatism — springboarding not just into contention but to a victory in the Iowa caucuses.

The one critical difference between 2008 and 2012, however, is that in the last election Democrats were engaged in an even more protracted nomination fight than Republicans. This time around, every day Republicans spend debating each other is a day that Obama can spend raising money and reaching out to the ideological center of the country.

Allen West goes local: D.C. Republicans may have made a surprising choice in having the very conservative, tea party Rep. Allen West (R) keynote their Lincoln-Douglass Dinner on Thursday night. But West proved an adept politician, tailoring his speech almost perfectly for the audience.

In contrast to the bombastic speeches he’s given at other events, West delivered a measured, historically rooted case for black involvement in the Republican Party, with a focus on urban issues. He got a standing ovation for his support of school vouchers in D.C., which passed the U.S. House on Thursday, and he showed familiarity with many local Republican candidates and issues.

“Republicans are making progress In the black community in the city of D.C.,” he declared. He said that many black voters would privately express their frustration with Obama but were afraid to say it out loud: “It’s time for the whispering to stop.”

“He laid out a classic black conservative argument,” said Richard Ivory, founder of the blog HipHopRepublican.com. Ivory said that, in crafting such a D.C..-centered message, the Iraq veteran West proved himself to be a true military strategist.

Redistricting ball is officially rolling: The sausage is officially being made, as several key states get their congressional redistricting plans off the ground.

On Thursday, we covered the initial proposal from a nonpartisan commission in Iowa, which would pit two sets of incumbents against each other. But they aren’t the only incumbents who are getting bad news as redistricting begins.

A preliminary redistricting plan in Missouri destroys Rep. Russ Carnahan’s (D-Mo.) district, as has been widely expected. Meanwhile, a plan has cleared a Louisiana state Senate committee this week would put Reps. Charles Boustany (R) and Jeff Landry (R) into the same district — another unsurprising result.

Iowa, Missouri and Louisiana will feature some of the nastiest redistricting fights, because each of them is losing a seat. The process in each state could drag on for some time.

Fixbits:

Priebus says a desire for a shorter presidential primary process has led to candidates waiting so long to launch their campaigns.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas.) raised $3 million in the first quarter — $1 million through his political action committee and $2 million through his nonprofit, Campaign for Liberty.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a controversial bill restricting union rights on Thursday night.

Salon reports that Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) approval rating in a poll conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was 73 percent.

Must-reads:

Interview with Rep. Michele Bachmann (Part 1)” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Can Obama lose?” — Matthew Dowd, National Journal

A brief history of primary polling (Part 1)” — Nate Silver, New York Times

Former Obama aides may start independent fundraising group” — Matea Gold and Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times

Views mixed on (Iowa) redistricting plan” -- Robynn Tysver, Omaha World-Herald

 
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