Crowded Debates Cause Political Chaos

Both parties are fielding a large number of presidential candidates in the early days of the 2008 campaign. What does this mean for the TV debates? For the moment, confusion and chaos.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The Republican presidential candidates, all 10 of them, were on stage in Columbia, South Carolina, this week. It was the second time this large group of presidential hopefuls have appeared together in a debate. The Democratic field is almost as large, eight candidates were on stage in their first debate, also in Columbia. The question is does the sheer size of the field affect what voters can learn about the candidates?

Here to discuss is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hello, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hello, John.

YDSTIE: Is it necessary to have so many candidates?

LIASSON: As long as the sponsors are going to set the rules to allow all the declared candidates to be on stage, yes. In South Carolina, anyone who'd paid the state filing fee could be on the stage and that does cause some frustration, not just on the part of voters who are watching and maybe want to hear more from the candidates, but it also causes some frustration among the candidates who want more time to get their message out.

But on the other hand, there is an argument to be made for having everyone on stage at this point. And if there's any time that you should give an opportunity for a Mike Huckabee or a Jim Gilmore or even a Bill Richardson on the Democratic side to break out of the second tier, this certainly is it.

YDSTIE: How do the people who manage and sponsor these debates going to winnow them down? Do they simply decide that if you get less than 10 percent of the polls you're out or something like that?

LIASSON: That's definitely how they do it. You know, there are other criteria. I mean, for instance, suppose you can cough up whatever it is - $25,000 in a certain state - they could use that, but the most traditional criteria is standing in the polls.

YDSTIE: What did the South Carolina debate between the Republicans tell us about the dynamic of that race right now?

LIASSON: Well, one interesting thing it told us is that candidates don't seem to be ganging up on the frontrunner. The frontrunner in the polls right now is Rudy Giuliani and usually he is the one who has a big target on his back, but that's not happening. Instead, you saw Mitt Romney going after John McCain sparking this exchange.

(Soundbite of Republican Presidential Debate)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts; 2008 Presidential Elections Republican Candidate): My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do the immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Presidential Candidate): I've kept a consistent position on campaign finance reform. I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for.

YDSTIE: That was Mitt Romney, followed by John McCain at the Republican debate this past week in Columbia, South Carolina.

LIASSON: Yeah, they went after each other. They didn't focus on Giuliani, and one of the reasons is that the Romney and McCain campaigns believe that Giuliani's candidacy is so improbable - a pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights candidate - that he just can't last in his current frontrunner position.

And the other thing you see is that candidates who aren't in the race are polling very well in the double digits - Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich. That shows you how much in turmoil the Republican Party is right now.

We have a tremendous number of debates coming up. The DNC just sanctioned one month, plus, two in June, and the Republicans are going to have plenty more too. They're going to all be going to New Hampshire on June 5th so there's lots of time to see these candidates. By the time most voters start paying attention to this race, which I think will be in the fall, the stages will be holding many fewer candidates.

YDSTIE: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, John.

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