GOP debate meeting: Big bluster, modest proposals

Fox Business piles on CNBC
Fox Business piles on CNBC

The Republican presidential campaigns that spent days advocating for an overhaul of the debates emerged from a highly anticipated meeting on Sunday night with only modest proposals for change -- and a great deal of disagreement.

The campaigns' requests -- a two-hour time limit, 30 seconds for opening and closing statements, equal speaking time for each candidate -- were remarkably limited in scope when compared to the ambitious proposals put forth in the days leading up the meeting.

But the campaigns failed to agree on key proposals, including bringing the so-called undercard candidates onto the main stage.

Several campaigns expressed interest in having all 14 candidates appear on the same stage, or splitting the debates into two randomly assigned groups of seven. But representatives for some of the frontrunners, especially the Donald Trump campaign, objected to that suggestion.

Related: GOP debate meeting: What the campaigns want

Nevertheless, the campaigns intend to send a co-signed letter to the networks later this week -- without input from the Republican National Committee -- detailing their demands.

For time's sake, campaigns agreed that those criteria will not apply to the Fox Business debate on November 10. They will apply to CNN, the sponsor of the following debate on December 15. As a debate sponsor, CNN is directly involved in conversations with the campaigns.

The letter that the campaigns send is likely to be based off a template handed out by Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg at the start of Sunday's meeting. That template, first reported on by The Washington Post, asks that the media sponsors answer questions and agree to demands that "will be used by each campaign to determine whether its candidate will participate in your debate."

Included in the list of demands: a commitment to refrain from asking candidates to raise their hands or answer yes/no questions and to promise not to show empty podiums or leave the mics on during commercial breaks. The template also requests that media organizations let candidates know the distance to the bathrooms.

The meeting, which took place at the Hilton Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia, lasted for more than two hours. It was convened by Ben Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett and included representatives from all the campaigns, except Carly Fiorina's.

The principal objective was achieving greater control in determining debate criteria with the media sponsors -- a role that until now has been held by the RNC. The campaigns have grown frustrated with the RNC's handling of the process, especially in the wake of CNBC's messy handling of the third GOP debate last week.

Related: Fox's debate ad says 'CNBC never asked the real questions'

But while several campaigns advocated for relegating the RNC to handling logistics, ticketing and other mundane matters, there is no indication that the campaigns actually intend to remove the RNC from the negotiating table.

In an effort to appease the campaigns prior to Sunday's meeting, the RNC announced that it had appointed a new official -- Sean Cairncross, the RNC's chief operating officer and former chief counsel -- to serve as the lead debate negotiator between campaigns and media networks. That position had formerly been held by RNC spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Related: RNC names new debate negotiator in shake up

But several representatives at the meeting said a management shakeup at the RNC would not suffice. What they wanted, they said, was total control over the negotiation process.

The campaigns have grown increasingly frustrated with the RNC's handling of the debate process generally, and last Wednesday's CNBC debate seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

"We've taken a back seat to this process, and we want to move closer to the front," a source with one of the campaigns told CNN before Sunday's meeting.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the Sunday meeting included representatives from all campaigns. A representative from Carly Fiorina's team did not attend.


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