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GOP aims to avoid 2012 primary lowlights

Updated: September 21, 2013 6:15AM



Hold on to your hats! — the 2016 presidential race already is heating up.

Hillary Clinton is making political speeches. Sources close to Vice President Joe Biden indicate he may not cede the Democratic field to her. Fresher faces, among them New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, are biding their time.

On the Republican side, Gov. Chris Christie, cruising toward a big re-election win in blue New Jersey, is letting it be known that he’s the broad-based candidate to lead the GOP to victory. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is trying to win back a big hunk of the GOP base suspicious of his immigration-reform efforts. Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are making the rounds on the political circuit. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is saying, Don’t forget about me. Now that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has opted not to run for re-election, what’s he up to? Jeb Bush’s mom may not want him to run, but he’s not out of it yet.

But as interesting as the candidate maneuvering is, perhaps more significant is the push by chairman Reince Priebus of the Republican National Committee to shake up the nominating process. He wants to shorten the primary season and move the convention up from late summer to June to give the GOP nominee more time to raise money and prepare for the general election.

Getting the most notice was the RNC declaring that NBC and CNN won’t host 2016 Republican primary debates if they go ahead with projects expected to be rich in campaign-boosting material for Clinton — a miniseries from NBC and a documentary by CNN. Nothing new here — in 2008 Democrats led by Barack Obama and Clinton refused to take part in a Fox News debate.

Priebus also wants to reduce the number of debates. This reflects the consensus that a 2012 primary fight embittered and prolonged by 20 debates damaged nominee Mitt Romney and that the August convention hampered his fund-raising.

Democrats might want to pay attention to the RNC’s concerns. In 2008 I wrote that debates for Democratic candidates were descending to the level of a TV game show with cheering and booing by the audience, glitzy stage settings and other theatrics like a CNN debate featuring a YouTube video of someone posing as a snowman asking a question.

The 2012 GOP debates were marred by hooting and jeering audiences, questions aimed more at provoking heated argument than new information about candidates, and moderator misbehavior.

In one Obama-Romney debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley put a thumb on the scales favoring Obama by asserting something that every unbiased observer found to be untrue — that he had called Benghazi a terrorist attack early on when he had made only a generalized statement about terrorism. Similarly, in a GOP primary debate, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos surprisingly inserted contraception into the discussion. Did he know that the Obama administration would later in the year make contraception an issue, or had he been duped into posing the issue by an Obama operative?

In 2008 and 2012 the networks threatened to turn debates into carnival freak shows. Spectacle, silliness and showbiz have always been a part of political campaigns, and should be. And candidates must confront tough questions. But Priebus is right to worry, and Democrats should as well, that too often the networks and their moderator-personalities have ill-served voters with their game show antics and barely veiled biases.



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