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At tomorrow's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, nine candidates will face questions from CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash and also from a popular conservative radio talk show host. The presence of Hugh Hewitt came out of a demand by the Republican Party to change the way debates are conducted. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hugh Hewitt is a 59-year-old professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange County, Calif., and his conservative credentials are not in doubt. In the 1980s, he worked for six years for the Reagan administration. Hewitt is also a popular syndicated host for the Salem Radio Network, who focuses as much on policy as politics. He has a keen interest in national security, and he says that his presence ensures a different kind of debate than the mainstream media would stage on its own.
HUGH HEWITT: And I have heard people say over the years, the straw man - probably the president said it since he deploys legions of them - is that the Republicans won't be tough enough. If they can't handle the mainstream media, how are they going to handle Putin?
FOLKENFLIK: Indeed, last month at a Democratic fundraiser in New York City, Obama mocked the main candidates in the Republican field.
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BARACK OBAMA: And then it turns out they can't handle a bunch of CNBC moderators.
FOLKENFLIK: This fall, CNBC debates unified the Republican campaigns in revulsion.
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OBAMA: If you can't handle those guys...
OBAMA: ...You know, then I don't think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you.
FOLKENFLIK: Again, Hugh Hewitt.
HEWITT: It's not about being tough enough. It's about being asked questions that matter to Republican primary voters. And all day long, three hours a day, 15 hours a week for 15 years, I have talked to center-right conservative audiences. And there are lots of liberals who listen as well, but mostly center-right people. And I know what interests them. I know what they want to have asked, and those are different issues.
FOLKENFLIK: These changes stem from the messy primary season in 2012 then Mitt Romney's loss in that year's general election.
SEAN SPICER: The party needed to get more in control of the debates.
FOLKENFLIK: Sean Spicer is the chief strategist of the Republican National Committee, the party's governing body.
SPICER: The media controls all aspects of the debate - when they were going to debate, how many there were, where they were. And really, what this came down to was the party recognizing that while the media has a huge role to play, that ultimately, people are seeking our nomination and that we should have the responsibility to make sure that that process is a little bit more orderly.
FOLKENFLIK: It is a policy without modern precedent, and the Democrats have made no such stipulations. No one from the liberal Mother Jones or The Nation magazines are on stage. Hewitt says he's not interested in softball questions toward Republicans, just informed ones. And he says the Democrats should consider copying the Republican approach.
HEWITT: If you found someone who was known to be a decidedly partisan journalist - whether they are an opinion journalist, a broadcast journalist or writer, whatever - and put them into the mix, it would be good for the Democratic debate. It would make it more interesting.
FOLKENFLIK: The RNC's Spicer argues the Democrats and the press are already in tune. Take ABC's chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, a former top aide in the Clinton White House. He had to recuse himself from the debates after acknowledging recent six-figure donations to the Clinton Foundation despite Hillary Clinton's ties. And Spicer pointed to the 2007 primary GOP debate moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a proud liberal who worked for president Carter and late Democratic speaker Tip O'Neill.
SPICER: That, to me, is where you borderline political malpractice, saying that you have a far-left debate moderator supposedly questioning people seeking the Republican nomination. And the idea of allowing that was insane.
FOLKENFLIK: The networks do not accept that analysis, but they did agree to the RNC's hardball play. Those that did not accept a conservative panelist stood to lose a big night to draw viewers, sell ads and generate buzz. Notably, Fox News was exempt. Spicer says that in future cycles, he'd love to find ways to convince donors to pay the $2 million cost of staging each debate and that maybe the networks wouldn't get to produce the debates at all. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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