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Rival GOP Campaigns Launch Power Plays In Debate Negotiations


And I'm Robert Seigel in Washington, D.C., where what's been playing out in the last 24 hours is the stuff of Hollywood political movies - secret meetings late at night just outside the capital city in a Hilton hotel in Alexandria, Va., rival presidential campaigns trying to make a power-play for the upcoming debates. It's happening because Republican candidates have been very unhappy with how the debates have gone, especially the one last week hosted by CNBC. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro has details of the secret meeting. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Leaders of the campaigns emerged from this meeting with a list of demands. What were the demands, and were they all in agreement on them?

MONTANARO: Well, they were in agreement for a little while until late this afternoon when the Trump campaign decided that it would independently negotiate its own terms with the networks as it has done all along. His campaign manager telling me this afternoon that they just felt that it would be too unwieldy to have 15 different campaigns sign on to one thing, that Mr. Trump's interests would not necessarily be at heart, and that's what they're going to keep in mind.

Now, some of the things that the campaigns still want and that Donald Trump's campaign had seemed to be in favor of, at least - again, directly negotiating with these networks, pushing party leadership aside, which they're all still intending to do. And there was this questionnaire and letter that the campaigns were circulating around to agree on, that they were going to do by the end of the day tomorrow. And they still could do that but without Trump.

And the broad framework was they wanted no hand-raising questions, opening and closing statements, a maximum of a two-hour debate, equal time and/or numbers of questions for each candidate and editorial control over things like biographical information on the screen - pretty granular stuff. But the Bush campaign was upset that CNBC didn't include his time as governor on the screen. And they want the ability to opt in or opt out of these debates if their demands are not met.

SIEGEL: Is this a measure of how weak the parties have become?

MONTANARO: In a way, it is. The Republican Party has been out of power for seven years, and they aren't exactly touting the last president, except for maybe one candidate, Jeb Bush, who has defended, anyway, his brother, George W. Bush, and said that he'd kept the country safe. But this is what can happen in open presidential elections, especially for the party out of power.

On the Democratic side, you have a president. President Obama is largely disengaged from the party apparatus, doesn't really like engaging in it all that much anyhow. And the irony here is that this whole scenario is one that the GOP was trying to avoid. It was a Wild West last time with so many debates in 2012 that the party decided to cut down on the number of them and try to more tightly control the moderators and the TV networks who were involved.

SIEGEL: The RNC tried to get ahead of this by suspending its debate with NBC in February, but that meant nixing the only Spanish-language cosponsor the GOP would've had in any debate this year, Telemundo. I understand that came up last night and was one of the disputes in the room.

MONTANARO: That certainly was. You know, in fact, the Bush campaign raised this because they feel like they need to reach out more to Hispanics, and they thought this was a real unforced error to not Telemundo in the mix. They wanted to bring Telemundo back. The Trump campaign said that they would boycott if they did that.

SIEGEL: Speaking of the Bush campaign, Jeb Bush struggled in the last debate. He's admitted as much. And he tried something of a reboot today. Let's take a listen to some of what he had to say. This is from a speech he gave in Tampa.


JEB BUSH: I will not trade in an optimistic outlook to put on the cloak of an angry agitator, and I will not make anyone feel small so I can feel big.

SIEGEL: Domenico, Jeb Bush sounds a little angry there. What's he trying to do?

MONTANARO: Well, I think he's certainly fired up. And his campaign, his candidacy, is called Jeb can fix it. This is this reboot of this campaign. Now, unfortunately, ironically, that's - I don't think the meaning of what's coming across is what he'd wanted it to come across as. It's kind of coming across as Jeb can fix his own campaign when he wants to be able to say Jeb can fix the country. He said I can fix it as a refrain over and over again. He said that he can't be something he's not, which is a direct, you know, allusion to the Donald Trump campaign and Ben Carson, some of these outside non-politicians who've gained some strength in the Republican primary. And you know, like he said there, I will not make anyone feel small so I can feel big.

SIEGEL: That's NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.