Shorter debates. Longer opening statements. Random, seven-candidate contests. Fourteen-candidate scrums.
The list of possible reforms to future Republican debates is growing as several campaigns get ready for a Sunday evening meeting in a northern Virginia hotel. And there is one point of agreement among some of them: Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has let them down, as have the television network hosts, and it is time for the candidates to have more say in the process.
"What's amazing is how bad the RNC botched this," said one campaign strategist who planned to attend the meeting. "They've got the biggest new TV show of the fall! The networks are making tons of money off of us. We should be telling them what to do. Reince is moving now because feels like he's going to be dumped by the next nominee, because of how badly he's botched this."
Preibus has tried to shape the reaction to this week's CNBC debate, which the candidates saw as a disastrous brew of bias and bad rules. But no campaign was satisfied by the chairman's decision to freeze NBC News's role in a future debate. Their complaints date back to before the CNBC debate, to a process that, they say, has been opaque and disrespectful.
"I want the candidates to have more input into how it's done," retired neurosurgeon and GOP contender Ben Carson told reporters in West Memphis, Ark. on Friday, dodging a question about whether he agreed with Priebus. "I believe we need to be thinking about how we create a debate situation where the American people see what drives each one of us."
The campaigns are being asked to send no more than two representatives to the session, which will be facilitated by longtime Republican attorney and fixer Ben Ginsberg. Carson and Donald Trump, two front-runners who got relatively little time at the CNBC debate, kickstarted the idea for a meeting. But some of the most avid interest in reform is coming from campaigns that have felt sidelined. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two current officeholders who have been repeatedly relegated to little-viewed "undercard" debates, are sending aides to push their own proposals. According to the expected participants, Graham's campaign has taken a leading role, with encouragement from candidates who want the senator in prime time.
"I don't think there's any reason to put the candidates in two groups," said Carson's campaign manager Barry Bennett. "We can put a man on the moon; we can figure out how to put 14 people on the stage. The issue is time and parity, not how many people are on stage. How about turning the microphones on and off when people are supposed to talk? The point of the polling threshold is to keep crazy people offstage, but functionally, it's keeping elected senators and governors off."
Trump's campaign is cool to that suggestion, and more interested in how the number of people onstage could be reduced. This disagreement between the two candidates with the most leverage could prevent a true consensus forming on Sunday evening. But among all campaigns there's interest in letting the campaigns vet debate rules or even moderators, both factors that became toxic at the CNBC debate.
"Questions from moderators about someone’s morality are uncalled for and that’s the kind of approach we’d like to see changed," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the campaign manager of her father, Mike Huckabee. "There is a real desire from our campaigns and others for more substance. We’re going to talk about possible options to move in that direction, such as bringing in organization heads or non-journalists as moderators to have a debate that is focused on the issues that matter to Republicans."
The campaign of former Florida governor Jeb Bush felt shortchanged not just on time, but also on the way the network described him to viewers. According to Republicans close to the Bush operation, his on-screen biography listed his work as a banker, rather than his gubernatorial record. Bush’s advisers have groused with associates that the RNC should have done a better job of alerting the campaigns about the broadcast and letting the candidates shape their own biographical details.
"The last debate was kind of ridiculous," Bush told reporters in Iowa Saturday. "I say this somewhat in jest, at least there was someone who fared worse in the last debate than me: CNBC."
CNBC's status as a totem of media bias grew all weekend, as much of the Republican field descended on Iowa. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), whose jeremiad against the press was seen as a defining moment of the debate, told conservatives at one stop that Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh — conservative radio hosts with varying styles and huge audiences — be called in to moderate.
Others, looking ahead to the Fox Business Network’s debate on Nov. 10, said they would push to ensure that candidates can make opening and closing statements. While the network has not yet agreed to that specific point, Republicans familiar with the RNC’s ongoing negotiations said those statements were likely to be part of it.
"We think it's critical that every campaign has an opportunity to make opening and closing statements, and that we all have equal time, so that we can put ourselves forward in the best light possible," said Chip Englander, the campaign manager of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). "That's what the viewers want to see."
Even former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who has raised little money and even less support in polls, was hoping to come by Sunday's meeting.
"The way the RNC devised this is terrible," Gilmore said in an interview. "What’s more annoying is the statements they’ve made trying to protect themselves from their own misconduct and how they’ve delegated power to the networks. But the moderators not being fair isn’t the real issue. The real issue is how arbitrary standards are determining who Republicans get to see in the debates. It’s total fraud."
Not every campaign is interested in a larger on-screen group of candidates. After the first "undercard" debate, the only one to include Gilmore, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum could even be overheard asking why Gilmore and former New York governor George Pataki were allowed onstage. But the blowback to the CNBC debate has changed some minds. To the candidates, the presence of their rivals is a smaller problem than a format seemingly designed to weaken their party.
"I told Priebus about a week ago that I didn’t like the structure of the debates and how the party was rationing them," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said in an interview. "I said, ‘Something has to change.’ I know they didn’t anticipate 15 candidates in the debates, but there are, and it blew up on them. These debates aren’t what they should be. You have the wrong people in charge of the subject matter and topics, setting candidates up for cheap shots."