We can expect some heated moments Thursday night in the final Republican debate before Super Tuesday, but it will take some pretty big flare-ups to match the fireworks that lit up its planning phase.
You might even say that the story of pulling this thing together is the story of the entire GOP campaign, complete with media feuds, a boycott threat, tension with Latinos, arguments about true conservatism — and everything revolving around Donald Trump, of course.
The debate in Houston was originally sponsored by NBC News, Telemundo and the National Review. Only Telemundo remains — and even its survival was in doubt for a while. NBC and the National Review were suspended by the Republican National Committee in separate conflicts and replaced by CNN and Salem Media.
The saga began in October at a debate sponsored and moderated by CNBC, the business-focused cable channel owned by NBCUniversal. Candidates complained during and after the event about questions they deemed unfair or overly confrontational.
One of the signature moments of the evening was this anti-media tirade by Ted Cruz.
It was a hit.
“We understand that NBC does not exercise full editorial control over CNBC’s journalistic approach,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter to NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “However, the network is an arm of your organization, and we need to ensure there is not a repeat performance.”
Following that decision, representatives of 11 Republican presidential campaigns met to discuss future debate demands. The Jeb Bush campaign recommended that Telemundo be reinstated. The Republican Party’s official autopsy of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat had called for more outreach to Latino voters after they favored President Obama 71 to 27 in the 2012 election. Ditching Telemundo — which had quickly entered talks with the Democratic National Committee, instead — would obviously be a bad look.
Of course, not everyone is so worried about alienating Latino voters. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said his candidate might boycott if Telemundo were to be included. Trump, whose plan to deport undocumented immigrants and construct a wall along the southern border of the United States has helped make him unpopular with Latinos, had previously clashed with Telemundo/MSNBC anchor Jose Diaz-Balart.
In January, the RNC announced it had replaced NBC with CNN for the Houston debate but would keep Telemundo. The committee also added Salem, which has been CNN’s conservative media partner on debates throughout the election season.
At that point, the National Review was still in the mix. But not for long.
Just a few days later, the conservative magazine unveiled its provocative “Against Trump” issue, featuring a sharply-worded editorial and 22 essays by leading conservative thinkers, all of whom urged Republican voters to reject the billionaire real estate magnate because he is not, in their estimation, a true conservative. The RNC suspended the National Review immediately.
“That was pretty expected,” editor Rich Lowry told me the next day. “We priced it in. I was going over the final press release with our publisher and was like, ‘You know this is going to cost us the debate, right?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ ”
So here we are, on debate day, with two of the three original media sponsors in exile and the lone survivor having been put through the wringer. Trump, Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson will surely go hard at one another with 11 states up for grabs on Tuesday, but they’ll have a hard time topping the drama and intrigue that led up to the event.