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For the GOP, the name of the game should be to pressure-test its roster of appealing candidates to see who would match up best against Hillary Clinton. That's especially important, given that electability is a much higher priority for Republican primary voters than in past elections. Will Marco Rubio appear ready for the presidency when scrutinized on the national stage? Can Scott Walker demonstrate a facility with foreign affairs that assuages voter concerns? Can Bush present himself as a candidate of the future, or will he get sucked into battles over his family's past? Which candidate can best appeal to a conservative audience, while not harming themselves for a general election?
The way things stand now, voters won't be getting many satisfying answers to any of those questions. There will be only nine sanctioned debates for a crowded field of contenders to make their case. With a lineup featuring at least 10 candidates, that's precious little time for any single candidate to get heard throughout the process. There are only two debates scheduled after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests — when the field inevitably will be whittled down to the most electable candidates. (It's possible other debates will be added later, depending on the circumstances.) Even Clinton, the overwhelming Democratic front-runner, is expected to participate in six debates against several second-tier challengers.
But despite all the urgency in preventing the debates from turning into another circus, that's exactly what's happening. Trump is poised to steal the stage at Fox's inaugural debate in August. None of the most serious candidates will get much time to press their case in the early debates. Those who are left out have every incentive to attack the leading candidates in order to get some kind of media coverage.
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By reducing the number of debates, the RNC sought to limit the damage caused to their strongest candidates. But in reality, the nominating process could take longer because there weren't enough debates to pare down the field. Adding insult to injury, the party could end up excluding the one woman running (Carly Fiorina, who's generating buzz in Iowa and New Hampshire), a popular battleground-state governor (John Kasich), and an accomplished Indian-American governor (Bobby Jindal). Trump could make it on stage at their expense. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.
There are plenty of creative options at the RNC's disposal. As others have proposed, they could divide the field for two rounds of debates, giving each candidate the opportunity to be heard and giving them more time to answer questions. They could raise the bar for inclusion by only allowing those hitting double-digits in a national poll to participate, ensuring that just the most likely nominees would qualify and giving them plenty of time to be heard. They could try to disqualify Trump, or at least call for certain standards to be met — like prohibiting candidates who gave money to Clinton's past campaigns — in order to take the stage.