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NH Politics

Saint Anselm College, local GOP officials surprised by CNN’s announcement of a debate in N.H.

The cable network said it will host a Republican presidential debate on Jan. 21, at Saint Anselm College. That was news to the school, which is partnering with another media outlet for a debate on Jan. 18.

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Saint Anselm College has a long history of hosting major political events in the run-up to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary every four years, so CNN’s announcement on Thursday that the Catholic school would serve as venue for a nationally televised GOP presidential debate next month was plausible on its face.

But the cable network’s announcement left the college perplexed.

“We were surprised to be included on a press release by a network about a debate which we had not planned or booked,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the college’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

Levesque said CNN’s announcement breached the Republican National Committee’s debate rules.

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“We have and will continue to work with the Republican Party on debates,” he said.

While CNN said it would hold a debate on Jan. 21, just two days before Granite Staters head to the polls, the college had already been working with ABC News to arrange for a debate on Jan. 18.

Shortly after CNN’s surprise announcement, ABC News announced its debate in partnership with WMUR and the New Hampshire GOP — and the college affirmed that its plans are to host the ABC News debate.

A spokesperson for CNN declined to comment on the confusion but affirmed the network’s commitment to hold a debate somewhere in the state.

“We can’t speak to any miscommunication within Saint Anselm, but we are moving forward with our plans to host a debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 21,” the CNN spokesperson told the Globe.

New Hampshire GOP chairman Chris Ager said CNN’s announcement “caught everyone by surprise,” since local party leaders have been working on the Jan. 18 debate plans for quite some time and awaiting word on whether the RNC’s Debates Committee would modify its rules. The committee’s decision is expected on Friday, he said.

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The committee is reportedly weighing whether to begin allowing candidates to participate in debates that are not approved by the party, and CNN’s announcement said the RNC “is expected to announce this week it will release candidates from its requirement that prevents them from participating in non-RNC-sanctioned debates.”

Still, that wouldn’t resolve the question about CNN’s venue.

“Something is not quite right with that CNN announcement,” Ager said.

“We’re pretty collegial up here,” he added. “We like to coordinate and talk with people and be friendly. ... It could have been a miscommunication, but it’s definitely a head-scratcher.”

Ager said the Jan. 18 event will offer local flavor and just enough time before the Jan. 23 primary for voters to digest what they heard and for candidates and others to respond to any claims made during the event. The CNN event planned for Jan. 21 is cutting it awfully close, he said.

“Less than 48 hours before the polls open, to do a debate? I’m not so sure the timing is right,” he said. “I’m also a little bit concerned about their criteria.”

The qualifications for candidates to participate in the debates are getting stricter. Those who finish in the top three spots in the Iowa caucuses would be invited to participate in CNN’s New Hampshire debate, as well as those who meet CNN’s polling qualifications, which include a 10 percent polling threshold in New Hampshire.

“Maybe they’re trying to winnow the field to only the people they want,” Ager said. “In New Hampshire, we like to have as many people as are credible candidates continue to get visibility so the voters decide, not a network. ... We want the voters of New Hampshire to winnow the field.”

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Unlike previous debates approved by the RNC, participants are not required to meet fund-raising marks from a specific number of donors.

ABC and WMUR-TV did not specify qualifications for their New Hampshire debate, saying the information would be released at a later date.

The debate announcements came a day after Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, former governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey met for the fourth debate of the 2024 primary season.

Former president Donald J. Trump, the GOP front-runner for the 2024 nomination, has yet to take part in any debate and has said he doesn’t plan to.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter.