That old phrase “the more the merrier” is ringing a little hollow in Republican ranks. By the time the first candidate forum rolls around in August, maybe one and a half dozen contenders will be officially in the race. That will make for a crowded stage unless someone gets crowded out, and that’s bound to happen to a few someones.
Fox News, hosting the opening debate in Cleveland Aug. 6, declared it will limit the number of candidates to the top 10 in an average of several polls. That means a very unhappy half a dozen or so, possibly including the lone female contender, won’t make it.
CNN puts on the second debate, Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, and deals with the teeming field by splitting it into two segments, requiring participants to register at least 1 percent in the polls.
Grumbling is bound to ensue. Especially for Fox as the uninvited stew in indignation. But for CNN, too, if the candidates in the also-rans segment feel like they’re being slighted in any way.
With either format, there’s no getting away from the reality that a lot of people will be on stage for probably no more than 90 minutes. The stakes will be high, especially for low-polling candidates, to make a big splash. That is fraught with the possibility that someone could make an outrageous statement that Democrats and their allies in the press would use to tar the whole party.
Another hazard is a debate moderator could throw out a question that could boomerang in a way to make the party look unreasonable. That happened in 2012 when a moderator asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would support a $1 tax increase in return for $10 in spending cuts. No candidate did. Later, when a few of them got to explain, they reasonably argued that history shows such deals mean the tax hike comes right away and the spending cuts never.
The plain truth is a big number of candidates on the stage prevents a substantive discussion of issues. Which is too bad as the party boasts a lot of thoughtful people who could provide that kind of debate.
Republicans, with good cause, can assert their cornucopia of presidential hopefuls represents a vibrant, diverse party in sharp contrast to the dreary prospect of little if any contest for the Democrat Party in what seems to be the inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton.
Still, another simple truth is that there may be 18, 19, 20 or more contenders on the GOP side but only a half dozen or so have any real hope of the nomination. A Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee might be able to score big in a primary or two but neither is going to be the nominee. Neither will the inspiring Dr. Ben Carson nor the impressive Carly Fiorina — being president requires some political office experience and they don’t have it.
Forecasting in politics is always risky, and surprises do happen. But we do have a pretty good idea of who are the top contenders, the frontrunners if you will. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker are obvious choices. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, when and if he gets in, likely will move up by virtue of his resounding re-election in a critical competitive state. Rand Paul makes impressive showings in some poll match-ups against Clinton, suggesting his libertarian views have appeal beyond the GOP. Add to those maybe Chris Christie, who appears to be making a comeback from political purgatory with well-reasoned policy positions, or the sharp-witted Ted Cruz. Lindsey Graham, George Pataki or someone else not on our radar might break out.
A discussion by no more than half a dozen candidates would be the most meaningful. But there’s no way to limit a debate to such a field. The Republicans are learning the meaning of another old phrase: “too much of a good thing.”