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Voters First Forum levels the playing field

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 03. 2015 7:58PM

MANCHESTER - As candidates prepare for Monday night's Voters First Presidential Forum, political pundits are calling the collaboration among news media outlets organizing and broadcasting the event "unprecedented."

The forum, organized by the New Hampshire Union Leader, along with the Charleston Post and Courier and the Cedar Rapids Gazette, was formed after complaints from Republicans in the early voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina over criteria for participation in a Fox News' Republican presidential debate.

“Cooperation by multiple media partners to host the upcoming Union Leader forum is very significant and unprecedented,” said Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College in Henniker. “Typically, media competes to host separate events like this forum. In this case, that they are cooperating is something new.”

The potential audience for the Voters First Forum at St. Anselm College continues to grow, as more TV and radio stations sign on to broadcast the event. Locally, WMUR-TV has followed NH1 News-WBIN in airing the 7 to 9 p.m. live event. It will be shown nationally by C-SPAN. Hearst Television has said all of its stations in markets across the country will air the forum; and NexStar Broadcasting will air it in Iowa markets, as well as others.

C-SPAN is the source broadcaster for the event, which will bring together for the first time 14 of the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Four of those 14 are excluded from the first sanctioned debate of the primary season, to be broadcast later in the week by Fox News. Fox has put together a list of participants based on a “top 10'' from unspecified national polls.

“Good for local media to hold this forum,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “If New Hampshire doesn't stand up for giving every credible candidate a hearing, what's the point of being first in the nation?”

“It is very unusual that all these media outlets are choosing to broadcast this event,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library, which is facilitating the event along with St. Anselm College. “The reason is that the organizers of the event have made it all about the voters, not themselves or their brands.”

The forum has brought together an unprecedented list of news media in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. In addition to the Union Leader, the Charleston Post and Courier and the Cedar Rapids Gazette, sponsors are WGIR and iHeart radio along with WLTX-TV in Columbia, S.C., and KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids. It will also be carried by N.H. Public Radio and by New England Cable News.

Lesperance said it isn't hard to see why these media outlets have banded together to organize the Voters First Presidential Forum — they want voters to be as informed as possible about every candidate, not just the early favorites.

“I believe these institutions recognize two important realities that would emerge from the approved debate format and schedule,” said Lesperance. “First, by limiting participation in the first debate to 10 candidates, voters are being deprived the opportunity to hear from the others who may not have unlimited funds or celebrity status. The Forum levels the playing field and gives voters the chance to hear from all of the declared candidates who wish to participate.

“Second, the criteria for inclusion in the first debate is performance in national polls,” continued Lesperance. “That approach is an assault on New Hampshire's First in the Nation Primary because it forces campaigns to seek national attention instead of focusing on early primary and caucus states. The forum refocuses attention on New Hampshire and represents cooperation across media partners to affirm the Granite State's special role in the nomination process.”

Forum moderator Jack Heath of WGIR radio will ask questions of each of the candidates based on a random draw. The questions are being put together based on topics that readers and viewers in the three early voting states selected online. Associate sponsors such as the Live Free or Die Alliance hope to have their audience questions as part of the mix as well.

Candidates participating are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal and Dr. Ben Carson.

Donald Trump declined to participate. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign didn't respond; and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore missed the cutoff deadline.

Monday's paper will feature a who's who of all the candidates participating, including information on their careers and bios.

Presidential Manchester Rick Santorum Jim Gilmore

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