Roger Ailes, head of Fox News. (Photo: Stephen Lovekin/AFP Photo)
The Republican presidential primary forum next Monday in New Hampshire will be more of a grilling than a debate, with individual candidates hauled up onstage one at a time to answer questions from a moderator.
Only three of the 17 Republican candidates will not be there. Businessman Donald Trump declined to attend, telling the New Hampshire Union Leader — the newspaper that came up with the idea for the forum — that he did not expect it to endorse him, so he saw little reason to take part. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee never responded to the Union Leader, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore filed paperwork Wednesday to become a candidate, so he did not meet the Union Leader’s criteria to take part.
The other 14 candidates will appear by themselves in rapid succession and be quizzed by moderator Jack Heath, a local talk-radio personality. The forum is structured this way because the Republican National Committee set rules saying there could be only a certain number of official debates. Any candidate taking part in a nonsanctioned debate, the RNC said, would not be allowed to take part in the sanctioned ones.
But the New Hampshire political establishment took umbrage at the way that national cable-TV giants Fox News and CNN have decided to shut out some of the Republican candidates from their debates. The first RNC-sanctioned debate, next Thursday in Cleveland, will feature only the top 10 candidates in the national polls.
So when Fox News announced its criteria, Republicans in New Hampshire felt they were being marginalized, and so the Union Leader, an institution in the state, decided to organize a candidate forum before the first debate.
“If you talk to Republicans in New Hampshire, they say that what Fox tried to do with their criteria was totally diminishing the entire primary process,” said Trent Spiner, the Union Leader’s executive editor. “This was not about New Hampshire or Iowa. This was about a couple of Fox News executives deciding they were going to decide who gets to participate.
“I’m sorry, Fox News, this is America. Voters get to decide,” Spiner said.
The candidates at the Union Leader forum will appear in two waves. There will be a first round of questions, and then each candidate will get a second chance onstage to respond to anything that’s been said by others. The event is two hours long, and even without any commercial interruptions, each candidate will likely get a total of around eight minutes of stage time.
It will be broadcast nationally on C-SPAN, and in New Hampshire on a number of local stations simultaneously. It begins at 7 p.m. ET.
Spiner said that in the past, candidate events like this have been broadcast on only one station at a time, and that the blanket coverage being provided by local stations is unprecedented.
Those in New Hampshire want to maintain their status as a state that puts candidates through their paces by means of direct interaction with voters. Political insiders in all three early primary or caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — feel that the importance of getting into the debates has forced the candidates to focus more of their time on gaining cable-TV exposure than on doing retail political events, meeting voters one on one. The less time that candidates spend in the early primary states, the less relevant these states feel. And they take their early primary status very seriously.
The Union Leader’s criteria for participation in its forum, Spiner said, included an established ground operation in one of the early primary states, a certain number of campaign events in those states, a certain number of staff members and offices, and the filing of paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
The Union Leader considered allowing Mark Everson, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service from 2003 to 2007, to take part. Everson announced his candidacy in March.
“We had discussions with Mark Everson about whether or not he would qualify. We didn’t want to do what Fox did, which was cut the field arbitrarily,” Spiner said. “We took a serious look to see if we were missing something here, and we decided we weren’t.”