Mocked by network anchors and ridiculed by senior members of their own party, the Republican presidential candidates who have been attempting to band together to alter rules for future primary debates appears to be buckling.
In the wake of last week’s debate, sponsored by CNBC, most of the 14 GOP candidates left in the field were unanimous in their anger about the way the event was handled, calling the questioning biased and frivolous. Over the weekend, they met in a Northern Virginia Hotel to hash out a list of questions and demands that they would present to future debate hosts.
Among other things, they planned to demand parity in airtime, approval over graphics displayed on screen, and guarantees that the temperature in the hall would not exceed 67 degrees Fahrenheit, and more.
But there was never a final agreement on the text, and the first cracks in the erstwhile candidates’ union began to appear Monday, when frontrunner Donald Trump announced that he would not sign the letter, preferring to negotiate directly with the networks. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina didn’t even send a representative to the meeting and refused to participate. Then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich indicated that they wouldn’t join, either.
By late Monday night, Fox News host Megyn Kelly was openly ridiculing the list of demands on her show, The Kelly File, asking sarcastically if the candidates might also like foot massages during the debate, and mocking the demand that they be allowed to approve networks’ graphics. “Oh yeah, that’s gonna happen,” she said dismissively.
On Tuesday, former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) criticized the candidates’ complaining while talking with reporters in Washington. “I think their complaints are legitimate, but come on. Man up and move on,” he said.
By late Tuesday, the possibility that a broad agreement between the candidates would be struck appeared to be in question, according to multiple reports. The four candidates who have definitively refused to sign the list of demands all campaigned on the issue in one way or another Tuesday.
Trump, as is his habit, made it all about Trump, saying that the whole issue had arisen when CNBC moderator John Harwood used the first question of the night to ask Trump if he was running a “comic book campaign.”
“The guy asked me a question,” Trump said Tuesday. “I think Harwood is probably finished as a credible reporter. He’s a disaster. And it was such a horribly put question and so obvious. And the Republicans coalesced around each other. It was actually pretty beautiful, when you think about it.”
(For the record, John Harwood is actually a widely respected journalist and is not, by any means, “finished.”)
Fiorina, Christie, and Kasich all used the controversy to differentiate themselves from the rest of the field, suggesting that the other candidates are afraid to take on difficult questions.
The controversy over the debates has been a major headache for the Republican National Committee, which is ultimately in charge of organizing and sanctioning the contests. RNC chair Reince Priebus was forced to rearrange the staff members charged with overseeing the debates over the weekend.