Danny Diaz did not have much to say to his fellow campaign managers. The man behind Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign was a surprise arrival at Sunday night’s emergency meeting; after all, it was a brainchild of former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the latest outsider candidate to surge past the once-dominant Bush campaign in the polls. Diaz even managed to avoid the reporters staking out the Hilton Alexandria Old Town, chasing anybody who showed up for what had been code-named “family meeting.”
The campaign managers were meeting to try to gain more control over the crucial primary debates, which have become a source of anger and frustration for the GOP presidential candidates. The following account of the meeting is based on interviews with several attendees, who asked not to be named because they were describing a private gathering.
According to the sources in the room, Diaz did not say much. He did not chime in when other campaigns shot down the idea of splitting the debates into two randomly-selected contests of seven candidates each, and he did not interrupt as others agreed that Fox Business, the next debate host, could do as it liked. He spoke up only to say that a planned February debate with NBC News, the one “suspended” by the Republican National Committee, needed to be salvaged. The debate partner was supposed to be Telemundo, and Republicans could not stiff the only Spanish-language network allowed into the cycle.
Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s crewcut campaign manager, shot him down.
“If you do that,” he said, “Trump walks.”
“Diaz dropped his head, like he was defeated,” an attendee said.
Here was the latest example of political outsiders humbling the Republican establishment. It had entered this election cycle with dreams of expanding the party and winning over Hispanic voters. Instead, it was contorting to meet the demands of Trump, a candidate who began his campaign with a promise to finish a border wall and keep “rapists” out of the country. Diaz’s second idea, to give candidates final approval of any chyrons or banners that appeared onscreen, was less controversial.
Of the candidates who participated in all three debates, only two — former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) — did not send representatives to the Alexandria summit. Spurred by Trump and Carson, the summit took for granted that the Republican National Committee had erred both by tightly controlling the debate schedule and by letting TV networks determine the debate logistics. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus had not quieted any dissent by suspending NBC’s future debate involvement. All that did was add uncertainty to Telemundo’s role, and telegraph that the RNC was bendable.
Even Ben Ginsberg, the unaffiliated super-lawyer invited to moderate the meeting, began by criticizing the RNC. “In previous years, the debate were much better run,” Ginsberg said, according to attendees.
Ginsberg started to explain that in prior cycles, candidates were given the criteria and format logistics of debates long in advance. An example of the chaos came with the upcoming Fox Business debate. Candidates, Ginsberg said, were given the criteria only after the botched CNBC debate was over.
“I knew the Fox Business format for two weeks,” interjected Lewandowski. He went on to describe how he’d called the Fox News Channel’s executive director, John Moody, and gotten him to explain the debate details while on vacation in Europe.
That surprised some other participants in the roundtable. Not only was Trump effectively dictating the terms of the debates — after all, he’d lobbied for the CNBC debate to be shortened — but he seemed to have a batphone while every other candidate was begging for information.
Representatives of Trump and Carson effectively shut down the people who had needed the meeting most, the managers of candidates forced into the little-watched “undercard” debates. On the way in, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) adviser Brett O’Donnell, a longtime debate maestro, said that he’d be lobbying for “equal treatment,” and no more ghettoizing of low-polling candidates. Like the other undercard candidates, Graham had come around to the idea of holding two debates, with seven randomly selected candidates.
The frontrunners were not having it.
“Why do I want to let someone who’s polling at 0.1 percent on that stage so he can take shots at Trump?” asked Lewandowski.
Barry Bennett, who as Ben Carson’s campaign manager had been arguing for the most inclusive debate possible, agreed with Lewandowski. “We’re spending the money and time to get into that [prime time] debate,” he said.
Still, there was more sympathy for the “undercard” candidates in the room than there had been from the networks. Graham, especially, had become a favorite of the better-polling campaigns. The important exception was Trump’s campaign.
But on most other issues, there was a quest for consensus. Several times, campaign representatives suggested calling someone from the RNC, as they’d be roped in eventually, but it seemed better to come to them with a strong plan. Ginsberg had come to the meeting with a two-page letter of suggested questions for any network hosting a debate. By acclamation, it was too late to subject Fox Business to those terms. The Nov. 10 debate was too soon, and there was no interest in angering the Fox News Channel. Fox’s debate was not perfect, but it had not crystallized the problems quite like CNBC had.
“It’s easier to be mad at CNBC,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the campaign manager for her father, Mike Huckabee.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the meeting ended with a tentative consensus. No one had figured out how to satisfy 14 campaigns that all wanted prime time spotlights. But everyone agreed that the debates needed opening and closing statements — 30 seconds would be fine. (Several campaigns felt that CNBC had reneged on a similar idea, turning opening statements into a hectoring opening question about the candidates’ greatest weaknesses.) Everyone wanted equal speaking time, untethered to moderator prerogatives or candidates’ polling positions. And everyone wanted the candidates to choose the moderators, reducing the role of the Republican National Committee to logistics and ticketing.
Ginsberg was slated to revise his letter, incorporating the new demands of the campaigns, and come back with something by mid-week. That was it for the meeting, and the campaign strategists went down to the first floor of the Hilton to meet, or evade, the two dozen reporters that had been waiting for a decision.
Robert Costa contributed to this story.