Jeb Bush, second from left, is flanked by Mike Huckabee, left, Marco Rubio, center, Donald Trump, second from right, and Ben Carson during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado on Oct. 28.

Jeb Bush, second from left, is flanked by Mike Huckabee, left, Marco Rubio, center, Donald Trump, second from right, and Ben Carson during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado on Oct. 28.

Frustrated GOP contemplate changes to debate setup

WASHINGTON — Republican candidates frustrated by their party’s presidential debates are contemplating changes to those remaining on the nomination calendar, even beyond the GOP chairman’s decision to suspend a partnership with NBC News and its properties on a debate set for February.

The complaints prompted a private meeting Sunday night in Washington, organized by Ben Carson’s campaign, with representatives from more than a dozen campaigns expected to attend. Yet it seemed unlikely that the campaigns would reach a consensus, given their competing needs, and even Carson’s campaign expected the meeting to achieve “absolutely nothing.”

The most recent debate, moderated by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday night, drew the harshest criticism. Afterward, some candidates complained that the questions were not substantive enough; others wanted more air time or the chance to deliver opening and closing statements.

“We need to mature in the way that we do these debates if they’re going to be useful to the American people,” retired neurosurgeon Carson told ABC’s “This Week.”

The push-back comes despite a high-profile effort by the Republican National Committee to improve the debate process going into the 2016 election season. The party said the 2012 debate schedule promoted too much fighting among candidates, so for 2016, the RNC dramatically reduced the number of debates for this election and played a leading role in coordinating network hosts and even moderators, in some cases.

Three debates remain before the first nomination contest, the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1; the next one is scheduled for Nov. 10 in Las Vegas. The RNC has sanctioned five debates after the caucuses.

While organizers of the meeting were not including the RNC, the party has been in regular communication with campaigns about their concerns.

“This is the first step in the process of understanding what the candidates want, and then we need to have a more specific conversation about NBC,” RNC chief strategist Sean Spicer said Sunday when asked about the meeting. “We need to start a process. Tonight’s the first step.”

It seemed unlikely that the campaigns would reach a consensus, given their competing needs.

Second-tier contenders such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham want to be featured alongside their higher-profile rivals. Some candidates, including Carson, are pressing for a greater focus on substance, more notice of the guidelines and perhaps fewer future debates.

“Everybody thinks there are too many,” Carson spokesman Doug Watts said Sunday, adding that he had low expectations for the meeting. “Realistically, we expect absolutely nothing to come out of it.”

Some candidates are trying to use the debate discord to their advantage — none more than Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Campaigning in Iowa this weekend, he slammed the CNBC debate moderators for asking questions in a way that he said “illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” He was cheered after calling for future debates to be moderated by conservatives such as radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Watts said every Republican campaign had agreed to attend except for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s. Republican attorney Ben Ginsberg, the general counsel for Mitt Romney’s last presidential campaign, was to moderate the meeting.

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