Is there room for a rat?
Faced with an unusually large class of Republican candidates, media organizations have begun setting the criteria for 12 GOP presidential debates between August and March.
There's no chance Ned Coll — who once famously brandished a rubber rat during a debate in New Hampshire — will make the cut. But his experience shows how much has changed since the days when having a mere five candidates in a debate was viewed as unwieldy.
For the first two scheduled GOP debates this year, Fox News and CNN each plan two-part events: one for the top contenders and one for the long shots. Such arrangements would have kept the colorful Coll and two others relegated to the second tier four decades ago.
In 1972, Democratic front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine faced mounting pressure from Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota to debate in New Hampshire, which in 2016 will celebrate 100 years of primaries. Muskie finally agreed, and two days before the March 7 primary, they joined Sen. Vance Hartke of Indiana, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Coll at the University of New Hampshire, where they sat on red chairs borrowed from the bar of a nearby hotel.
Coll was the 32-year-old founder of an anti-poverty group in Connecticut called the Revitalization Corps and he brought the rat along to symbolize urban decay. He went on to become a champion for public beach access, and today — 25 years after he says Jesus Christ spoke to him in a vision — his causes include promoting prayer in public schools.
"I'm considering entering again, as a prophet," he said in a recent interview. "Basically, we have to get back to our roots: In God we trust, and we the people."
The 1972 debate was broadcast on public television nationwide. Media accounts depicted it as rather a dull night.
"The inclusion of minor candidates not only curtailed the time available to Mr. Muskie and Mr. McGovern but also made any sustained debate between them difficult," wrote R.W. Apple Jr. for The New York Times. A United Press International story began, "Cluttered by the participation of three candidates given no chance to win ..."
Carl P. Leubsdorf, who covered the debate for The Associated Press, remembers Coll as a high point of the debate.
"They were discussing the problems the country was facing, and he suddenly held up this rubber rat and said, 'This is the real problem,'" Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief and now columnist for The Dallas Morning News. "As debate moments go, it was pretty good."
The New York Times reported that the campaigns had hammered out the details of the debate the previous week after six and half hours of negotiations.
"You were really at the mercy of what the candidates could work out, and what the sponsors did," Leubsdorf said.
For the 2016 campaign, work began much earlier. Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire, was named chairman of the RNC's debate committee in August 2014.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of 2012, when there were more than 20 debates, he led the effort to approach nearly two dozen potential 2016 candidates and figure out a better system. Their consensus: fewer debates spread out among more states and on a more predictable timetable. So far, the networks and other media organizations largely have agreed, he said, though the "final frontier" — deciding who participates — is up to the hosts.
Fox News at first said it would limit its August debate to the top 10 candidates based on polling averages but announced Wednesday that candidates who do not qualify for the prime-time debate will be invited to participate in a 90-minute forum to be aired during the afternoon of Aug. 6. CNN, which plans to hold a debate in September, will divide its event into two parts: one featuring the 10 highest polling candidates, and the other including candidates who are at 1 percent or higher in polls but not in the top 10.
"I wish we could find a way to debate with 16 people on stage and have it be meaningful," Duprey said. "But I don't think that's going to happen."
The Democratic National Committee, which so far has a much smaller field of presidential hopefuls, has sanctioned six primary debates, giving long-shot candidates a chance to challenge front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. The DNC said in May that the four early-voting states will host a debate: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The location of the other two debates was not announced.
As for Coll, he remembers buying the rat at a novelty store and sticking it in his pocket.
"The whole point is, I wanted to bring up poverty," he said. "I knew if I did that, it would make the point."
Aides to the major candidates were not impressed. A McGovern adviser told The New York Times that the debate "should have taught us what a lot of foolishness it is."
One of Muskie's staffers concluded: "I would think this would be the end of the debates."
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