Boulder, Colo. — After a performance by CNBC moderators that Republicans characterized as both biased and inept, a manager for a top GOP campaign says he will try to organize other campaigns to force the Republican National Committee to make "wholesale change" in the debate process.
In an interview shortly after the debate, Barry Bennett, manager of the Ben Carson campaign, called the session here in Colorado "unfair to everyone" and said the current debate structure should not remain in place. "I think the families need to get together here, because these debates as structured by the RNC are not helping the party," Bennett said. "There's not enough time to talk about your plans, there's no presentation. It's just a slugfest. All we do is change moderators. And the trendline is horrific. So I think there needs to be wholesale change here."
Bennett said he will call Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski Thursday to propose a unified call for change. "Corey and I talk regularly, so I will talk to him," Bennett said. "I will call Frank Sadler (Carly Fiorina's campaign manager), I will call those guys and say listen, we can choose our own network and our own format. We don't need to be led around like prize steers."
"I think at this point, if five or six of us get together, who generate the largest portion of the audience, we can force change," Bennett said.
Bennett noted that the Carson and Trump campaigns forced CNBC to shorten the debate and allow opening and closing statements. If campaigns can compel that kind of change, the reasoning goes, perhaps they can push for a more fundamental reworking of the debate structure.
Bennett is particularly unhappy with the length of time given candidates to address issues — he thinks it's way too short — as well as the debate moderators' attempts to spark fights between the candidates. Bennett had not yet spoken with Carson himself about Wednesday night's debate, but said the two have discussed the problem in the past. "He hates the format," Bennett said of Carson.
Even before the debate was over, Republicans took to social media to complain bitterly about CNBC's questions. The feeling was apparently so strong in the debate room that Ted Cruz created the moment of the night when he denounced the moderators:
The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don't trust the media.
This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — "Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?" "Ben Carson, can you do math?" "John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?" "Marco Rubio, why don't you resign?" "Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?" How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?
The crowd went crazy. And approval was almost as loud when other candidates, including Trump and Rubio, went after the moderators. At one point, Chris Christie told the CNBC group, "Even in New Jersey what you're doing is called rude."
While the debate was still going on, multiple campaigns called RNC chairman Reince Priebus to complain. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, Priebus prepared a statement for release the instant the debate ended. "The performance by the CNBC moderators was extremely disappointing and did a disservice to their network, our candidates, and voters," Priebus said. "CNBC should be ashamed of how this debate was handled."
In coming days there will be many more denunciations of CNBC. But for the campaigns, the bigger issue could be the party. In an effort to avoid repeating the perceived problems of 2012, Priebus took control of the debate process. Now, if the Carson campaign and others unite, Priebus could lose some of that control.