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Trump's debate bashing 'helped us': Organizers

Donald Trump's claim that the debate schedule is "rigged" might actually have been helpful, the co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates tells CNBC.com.

"In a way, the Trump attack helped us in meeting the argument that the third parties have had in their lawsuits against us for the last 20 years ... that we are controlled by the [major] parties," said Frank Fahrenkopf, a former top Republican official who helped found the CPD in 1987. "This clearly showed we are not controlled by the parties."

For the first time since Ross Perot took the debate stage in 1992, there is a decent chance that at least one third-party candidate will be allowed to parry with Trump and Hillary Clinton next month. Their barrier to entry is a 15 percent polling average in the five major national surveys, a controversial standard of inclusion the commission adopted in 2000.

Presently, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson is the closest third-party candidate to reach that mark, having netted 12 percent in a Fox News national survey last month. However, he is currently polling just 7 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Green Party nominee Jill Stein is theoretically within range, albeit her chances appear much slimmer (she's notching just 3 percent in the RCP average).

Last September, the Libertarian and Green parties filed a federal lawsuit against the CPD, trying to do away with its barrier to entry. The litigation, which is still pending, accuses the the commission, DNC and RNC of conspiring to keep third-party candidates out of the debates, in violation of antitrust laws.

Donald Trump
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Donald Trump

While the commission vehemently denies it, Fahrenkopf acknowledged the prevailing sensitivity about political elites obstructing outsiders. He even suggested it might consider giving an inch to a third-party candidate who is close enough to the cutoff point. Former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, the CPD's other co-chair, said his group will consult Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, in the event that a third-party candidate polls within the "gray zone."

"If someone came in and let's say he was [polling] at 14.5 percent and the margin of error in five polls was 3 points, we are going to have to sit down and look at it," Fahrenkopf said. "But right now that person would not be included."

Meanwhile, Trump's complaints this weekend — that the 2 of the 4 presidential debates will occur on nights with nationally televised NFL games — isn't yet worrying the commission, even as it has led to growing speculation the Republican nominee might try to bail.

Fahrenkopf shrugged at such a prospect: "There is no way that we can compel any candidate to debate," he said, adding that a candidate who decided to skip the debates would be taking a "hell of a chance" with voters.

"We are at a point where the American people expect these debates to happen," said McCurry. "We try to take a lot of the posture of negotiating out of the equation by saying here is what we have set up in the best interest of the American people, and here is a format and we hope you will participate."

As of Monday, Fahrenkopf said he had not heard anything directly from the Trump campaign since he briefed campaign manager Paul Manafort on the debate particulars about six weeks ago. Fahrenkopf wasn't even sure if Manafort would continue to be Trump's emissary to the commission. (Trump's communications director, Hope Hicks, did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.com.)

Sunday on CNN, Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, suggested that the griping was part of setting the stage for negotiations.

"The only predictable thing in this election is something unpredictable will happen," McCurry told CNBC.com. "That said, we set the table and expect candidates to by and large agree to the formats and design we establish, and their own conversations about logistics or creature comforts are up to them."

Last month, Wright State University in Ohio, which was slated to host the first debate on Sept. 26, abruptly backed out suggesting that security costs were too high. The commission quickly tapped Hofstra University in New York, a past debate host, to fill in. McCurry said that while the commission anticipates no further changes of venue, it has backup hosts on standby for each of the remaining debate cites as well.

In the wake of the DNC hacking scandal, the co-chairman emphasized the seriousness with which the commission has undertaken its own cybersecurity. Fahrenkopf said that the CPD brought in experts three or four months ago, who conducted a top-to-bottom cybersecurity review, which included his home phone and personal computer.

The commission says there has been no evidence yet of a hacking attempt: "This is all prophylactic," said McCurry.

The CPD relegates on-the-ground security to the Secret Service and local law enforcement. And while heated protests have been a hallmark of the campaign, the commission expresses confidence that they debates will proceed without disruption.

"Going back in time and looking when people were having sit-ins, we really haven't had anyone stand up and scream at the debates," said Fahrenkopf. "Maybe we have just been lucky."

The debates' format, just as four years ago, will consist of six, 15-minute segments.

"We are also asking moderators to be fairly explicit in announcing topics so there is not any question of what we are going to get into in this debate," said McCurry. "We tried that four years ago with modest success, but could probably do a better job this time around."

At the same time, the commission's prerogative is to have a free-flowing exchange between the candidates.

"It will be iterative, because we hope, first, there will be a vibrant discussion, and that one debate will feed into next debate," McCurry said.

To augment this, the commission has spent the last four years hosting nearly 70 meetings with tech companies and academic centers, all in an effort to more substantively synthesize social media into the debate process. Up until now, the commission says, social media has been used as either a gimmick or a branding opportunity. But among other things, the commission has been working with the MIT Media Lab on ways to representatively cull audience input from platforms like Facebook, and to use social media as a way of determining what questions viewers feel have gone unanswered over the course of the four debates.

"The question is how do you curate or aggregate it so you can deliver to the moderator something that is a pretty good quantified explanation of what we are seeing across social media," said McCurry.

The commission declined to go into specifics, saying that it would release a more detailed social media plan in the coming weeks.

Choice of moderators

The biggest decision left to the commission will be the choice of moderators, who will be selected roughly two weeks prior to the first debate. Given the outsized personalities of the candidates, and the debate controversies that took place during the primary season, the stakes feel particularly high.

"It is pretty clear it is going to take someone who has a strong sense how to keep things under control," said McCurry.

On the other hand, Fahrenkopf said, the commission does not want a repeat performance of Candy Crowley's infamous tete-a-tete with Mitt Romney four years ago, when the former CNN host contradicted GOP nominee over the White House's response to Benghazi.

Despite this year's candidates having varying reputations for dissembling in public, Fahrenkopf said he does not want the debate moderator to try and be a real-time fact-checker.

"It is our view that if 'Candidate A' says something that is totally wrong, it is for 'Candidate B' to point that out," he said. "We want the moderator to be the facilitator."

Both co-chairmen spoke critically of this year's primary debate slate, which they said said were filled with moderators needlessly goading candidates into personally attacking one another. Fahrenkopf derided the productions as "circuses."

"The side to error on is a moderator who is humble enough to recognize he or she is not the point of the debate," said McCurry. "That is the No. 1 criteria: the moderator has to get out of the way."


Push for diversity

McCurry said that, as part of its selection process, the commission will be mindful of how many people could be watching online, suggesting that it could could cast its net beyond the network television pool. There will also be a clear push toward diversity, which includes age.

"It is a painful admission that there are a bunch of baby boomers and post baby boomers [on the CPD], but that requires us to be especially conscientious," McCurry said. "Frankly, that weighs heavily on my mind with the whole moderator question because I would like to see someone under the age of 50, if not under 40, moderate the debates."

McCurry said when he is on college campuses, he often asks students for their moderator suggestions. Invariably the responses come back: Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. And McCurry confesses that he occasionally catches himself "mischievously" dreaming of what a Stewart-moderated debate would look like — and the kind of interest it would generate.

"We would be immediately excoriated," he said, "But I do have to say I wake up and think, 'Do I have the balls to actually recommend this?'"

At least for this election, the answer will continue to be "no." Of all the unknowns confronting the commission this election, it is certain of one thing: Its debates won't be starved for attention.