A group of top New Hampshire Republicans is urging Fox News to change the rules for participation in the first Republican presidential debate, arguing they are unfair and diminish the power the Granite State traditionally exercises as the place that holds the nation’s first presidential primary.
In all, 56 Republicans — including former governors, State House leaders, and former party chairmen — signed a letter written to Fox News addressing both the criteria for which candidates qualify for the August debate and how the debate itself should be conducted.
Fox News and CNN, which will hold the first two debates, announced separate debate rules last month, trying to bring order to what would otherwise be unwieldy debates with upwards of 20 Republican presidential candidates.
Both networks say they will rely on an aggregate of national polling to field a debate of the top 10 candidates. CNN said it will have an additional debate with the bottom-tier candidates.
These rules mean some Republicans with weighty resumes will be excluded because they are not well known nationally. For example, if the debate were held today, it would probably not include former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among others. Awkwardly, the Fox News debate, which is scheduled for Aug. 6 in Cleveland, currently would not include Governor John Kasich of Ohio. Yet New York businessman Donald Trump would qualify.
The letter from New Hampshire Republicans suggests that Fox hold two debates with a mix of leading and bottom-tier candidates, and with no major candidate excluded.
“The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary plays a pivotal role in selecting our nominees for president,” read the letter from New Hampshire Republicans to Fox News president Roger Ailes. “Historically, it has been the responsibility of early primary and caucus states to closely examine and winnow the field of candidates, and it is not in the electorate’s interest to have TV debate criteria supplant this solemn duty. To do so would undermine the very nature of our process and the valuable service that states like New Hampshire provide to voters across the country.”
Following up on the letter, the New Hampshire Union Leader on Wednesday evening announced it would host its own Aug. 6 presidential forum in state and broadcast on C-SPAN for candidates not included in the Fox News program. Hours later, Fox News countered that it would host a forum on the afternoon of the first debate in Cleveland with the candidates who did not qualify for the network’s evening debate.
Since the debate rules were announced last month, Republicans have argued over the networks’ criteria. Former US senator Rick Santorum, who currently would not qualify for the Fox debate, has called the debate guidelines arbitrary and not legitimate. In New Hampshire on Tuesday, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said the network had to do something to limit the number of candidates.
“People are going to set standards, and if you’re in, you’re going to be happy about it, and if you’re out, you’re not,” Christie said. “Let’s see what people do, and we’ll go from there.”
After the letter became public, the Graham campaign expressed support for the effort.
“The early states give candidates the opportunity to gain traction through grassroots campaigning and direct interaction with voters,” said Graham’s campaign manager, Christian Ferry, in a statement. “We hope media outlets and the RNC will heed the advice of leaders in New Hampshire and other early primary states and revise their debate criteria so voters, rather than national polls, make determinations about who our nominee for president will be.”
Last year, the Republican National Committee was not worried about the number of candidates — just the sheer number of debates. After 23 presidential primary debates in 2008 and 20 primary debates in 2012, the RNC created a commission to bring order to the process. The commission, chaired by New Hampshire Republican National Committee member Steve Duprey, sanctioned nine GOP debates.
In a lengthy statement, Duprey said there is no perfect set of criteria for debates.
“Our various media partners were all receptive to our suggestions as to how to determine who got into the debates and what the criteria should be. However, those same media partners made it clear that they, as the holders of the FCC licenses, got to make the decision on criteria,” Duprey wrote. “Further, there are legitimate concerns that if the RNC set the criteria that would create an illegal campaign contribution to those who our criteria allowed in to a debate.”
Representatives for Fox News and CNN did not return a request for comment on the Granite State Republicans’ suggestions for their respective debates. But the RNC chairman expressed support for CNN and FOX’s debate standards.
“We are very pleased that both CNN and Fox will give all candidates over one percent significant exposure,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement to the Globe.
James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com.