WASHINGTON — The Republican National Committee has freed its presidential candidates from their pledge to only participate in debates sanctioned by the party, allowing rivals to Donald Trump to confront each other again before key nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire next month.
Television networks CNN and ABC have already announced plans for January debates in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the RNC’s decision Friday means there could be still more.
“It is now time for Republican primary voters to decide who will be our next president, and candidates are free to use any forum or format to communicate to voters as they see fit,” the party said in a statement.
The change is unlikely to lure Trump, who has a wide polling lead, into any televised debates. The former president has said he will boycott all the forums, hoping to avoid confronting his Republican rivals directly as he focuses on a general election campaign against President Joe Biden.
The four debates so far this year have had conservative news organizations as co-sponsors, following complaints in past cycles that more mainstream or left-leaning organizations were unfair to Republican candidates. The RNC required contenders' pledge to forgo events not approved by the party as a condition for appearing at those four debates.
Four candidates attended Wednesday’s sanctioned debate in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
It was the smallest debate stage for Republicans at this point in the campaign than at any time since 1999.
DeSantis, Christie and Ramaswamy all asked the RNC to loosen the restriction on outside debates, according to a person familiar with the process.
The debate sponsors — not the party — will decide who qualifies for future forums. CNN has set a threshold of 10% support in three national or Iowa polls for its Jan. 10 debate in Des Moines, ahead of the Jan. 15 caucuses. The criteria are similar for New Hampshire, but the top three Iowa finishers will automatically be invited to its debate on Jan. 21.
ABC News and WMUR TV in Manchester, New Hampshire, said they would also hold a debate in the Granite State on Jan. 18, ahead of the Jan. 23 primary.
Only Trump, DeSantis and Haley are polling above 10% in Iowa, while Trump, Haley and Christie cross that threshold in New Hampshire.
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