SAN DIEGO — Republican leaders on Friday plan to unveil new rules for presidential debates, marking the most aggressive effort yet by a national party committee to limit the number of forums and to shape the environment for the nominating season.
Reacting to what many in the party concluded was a chaotic and ultimately costly series of debates in the 2012 campaign, a task force of the Republican National Committee has spent months seeking to devise a set of rules that will bring more order to the process, include more conservative outlets as sponsors and establish sanctions for candidates who violate the rules.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview Thursday that he regarded the 2012 debates as “an embarrassment and ridiculous” for the party.
“It was like a dog-and-pony show,” he said. “I think debates are important, but just because you’re a good debater doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good president. It’s just too much of an importance on debating.”
With final details still being worked out here Thursday, the plan would cut the number of debates roughly in half from the two dozen or so that were held in the last nomination cycle. It would also spread them out geographically, rather than allow them to be heavily concentrated in the few states with early primaries or caucuses.
The recommendations also call for a later start to debate seasons. In the last presidential primary season, the first debate was held in May 2011. The goal this time is for the first debate to be held later this summer, possibly at the RNC chairman’s meeting in Ohio, which is also the site of the 2016 convention.
“All of our candidates, our party and probably the country as a whole realized after the last cycle that there were too many debates, too many bunched together, too close geographically, and it became a burden on the candidates, and it probably did nothing more to help them with getting better known in America,” said Steve Duprey, a national committeeman from New Hampshire and head of the review committee.
The effort has widespread support among members of the national committee but has drawn skeptical responses from some others in the party. Skeptics say that whatever the national committee tries to do, the candidates ultimately will decide out of their own self-interest when and where they want to debate.
“The number of debates will ultimately be determined by the will of the field, plus willing media partners and various constituency groups who are important to the campaigns,” said Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a veteran of presidential campaigns who led debate negotiations for Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012.
The debate task force has had to deal with complaints by some members of the party that what they viewed as liberal news organizations and moderators had too much influence in the selection of a nominee.
At the same time, leaders were sensitive to criticism that the new rules would be designed to shield their candidates from tough questioning, possibly creating a closed system designed to communicate almost exclusively with conservatives and not a broader audience.
Duprey said that while the desire to protect candidates existed, “that certainly didn’t drive the committee, that didn’t have any influence. I think the only legitimate concern that I heard was that we wanted to make sure that there were some conservative voices who were participating in the debates.”
He added: “Any candidate who can’t handle a tough question from a perhaps unfriendly member of the media probably isn’t ready to stand up to Vladimir Putin.”
Party leaders are contemplating potentially stiff sanctions against candidates who violate the rules by participating in unsanctioned debates. Possibilities include denying a candidate access to national committee data or access to the national convention if he or she purposely takes part in unsanctioned events.
There also could be criteria for participation in debates, particularly those after the first caucuses or primaries. Priebus maintains a list of Republicans who have declared interest in a 2016 campaign. The list totals 24 people.
Officials said early debates would almost certainly include the declared candidates. But unless a candidate finishes in the top ranks in early contests, he or she might be excluded from later debates.
John Brabender, the top strategist for Rick Santorum, said the RNC’s efforts to create a more streamlined process are admirable — especially considering the possibility that Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton can skate through her primaries relatively unscathed. But he said it is incumbent on the party committee to provide an “equal opportunity” to all candidates.
“The real challenge is going to be: How do you establish what is that benchmark that says yes, somebody’s included or not included?” Brabender said. “The one lesson that we’ve learned in the 2012 election was that people could change their position quite dramatically based on debates. . . . That will be the toughest test of all, when you get to the point where somebody is the arbiter of who gets to move forward and who doesn’t.”
One major complaint about the number of debates in 2012 is that they consumed valuable time that could have been used for campaigning in early states or offering more substantive policy proposals.
Campaign veterans said each debate required a candidate to set aside three days for preparation and participation. Cutting the number from two dozen to a dozen or fewer would free up a month of extra time.
One question is whether Republicans are trying to design a process that would have worked better in 2012 than in 2016. In the last round, the nominating contest pitted Romney against the field, which meant that the former Massachusetts governor was the principal target in virtually every debate. The damage inflicted proved costly.
In 2016, however, the race could look much different, with more-established candidates who will have every incentive to want the exposure and potential political gains that multiple debates can provide. Romney has told others that he thought the roughly two dozen debates were helpful to him by improving his skills as a candidate.
The committee announced Wednesday that the national 2016 convention will be held July 18-21 — more than a month earlier than recent conventions. The RNC has also set a later starting date for the first caucuses and primaries. Priebus said the committee’s work on all these aspects of the process are aimed at producing a stronger nominee.
“I’m trying to limit the opportunity we have to kill each other,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be a person that sells what I control. I don’t like to sell things I don’t control. I don’t control people’s mouths, that’s for sure, but what I do control is the length of time we have to kill each other.”