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Can Republicans Keep Out the Clown Posse?

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Honk if you aren't running for the Republican presidential nomination. 

With Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee tripping over one another’s announcements this week, we now have 15 declared candidates, 10 who are exploring a run and five who could jump in, including the Harold Stassen of vanity candidates, Donald Trump. 

This threatens a repeat of what Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus vowed he would never let happen again: presidential nomination debates that devolve into a circus. 

Even without Trump in, this year could be worse than 2012, when former Speaker Newt Gingrich vowed to colonize the moon and briefly leapt ahead of Mitt Romney. Gingrich's real ambition wasn’t the CNN show he eventually landed but to be the colony’s first congressman.

The 2012 candidates said some strange things, but no stranger than what Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon turned Obamacare scourge, has come with by comparing the health care program to slavery. Was lobbyist Herman Cain bleating "9-9-9" in response to every question any worse than former Arkansas Governor Huckabee scolding the Obamas for letting their daughters listen to Beyonce or blaming gay militants for forcing Indiana’s governor to retract his religious freedom act?

Still traumatized by the 2012 "dog-and-pony show," which he called an "embarrassment and ridiculous," Priebus has decreed that this time the circus can have only nine rings, I mean debates, compared with about two dozen in the 2012 cycle. Only media outlets Priebus can stomach will get the chance to broadcast one of them. The left-leaning MSNBC will be excluded and its parent, NBC, will have to share its one debate with Telemundo. Fox and CNBC have been granted debates along with CNN after it dropped plans for a Hillary docudrama.

Knowing how badly the candidates want air time, which at the very least could get them a post-election berth on "Crossfire," the party is considering sanctions against anyone who participates in rogue debates.

Limiting the number of debates may or may not help. What Priebus really needs to do is limit the number of debaters. He publicly atoned for not doing it last time but so far he hasn't come up with a way to prevent another melee. He’ll have to act fast to find a formula before the first debate in August in Ohio, sponsored by Fox.

Priebus saw the damage last time as the eventual winner, Mitt Romney, repeatedly found himself on stage with people who weren’t going to win anything but frequent flyer miles but could still goad him into musing about “self-deportation.”

If Priebus doesn’t come up with something, the eventual winner this time will be sharing a stage with Carson comparing the U.S. under President Barack Obama to Nazi Germany or the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo. But Carson is the only black candidate, and that matters to a party that recognizes it has a likability deficit with minorities.

Similarly, eliminating Fiorina would reignite the War on Women meme. Fiorina isn’t as out there as Carson, but she has no hope of making a dent, given her credentials as a losing Senate candidate, who had previously been ousted as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard for a questionable merger and huge layoffs, a record that is likely to come up a lot.

And how can he nudge evangelical favorite Huckabee to the side? He wasn’t a clown in 2008 but he, his party and his Fox audience have moved to the right since then. In his campaign manifesto, "God, Guns, Grits and Gravy," and on the stump, the former governor dishes out opprobrium to a wasteland of miscreants. He assails the mainstream media, Jay-Z, the “ick factor” in gay relationships and gay adoption (because “children are not puppies”). And he has become a survivalist hawking quack medicine, even though, like the other former governor from Hope, he became rich after leaving office.

Priebus has floated a "threshold" test that requires a candidate to be above a certain level of popularity in an aggregate of polls. That might not do it. Last time, most of the lesser candidates had poll numbers that fluctuated wildly and each had a moment -- or two -- with high enough numbers to claim a place on stage.  

Let's say Priebus sets the bar at 3 percent, he would lose a few of harmless former governors voters couldn’t pick out of a lineup -- George Pataki, Bob Ehrlich, Jim Gilmore -- but he also would eliminate potentially serious candidates, Governors John Kasich (who won re-election in crucial Ohio with almost 64 percent of the vote), Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal.

As bad as the polling threshold would be, it is better than the alternative, a money threshold. That would only cement the Republicans' image as the party of the wealthy, with a "pay to play" filter that leaves those who aren't in the pocket of the Koch Brothers with their noses pressed against the camera lens.  

What the party elders need is a smoke-filled room. There, a wiser head could call a clown a clown. You aren’t going to win, so please won’t you go stand in front of a security camera to get the attention you deserve.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net