Can they keep clowns off the debate stage?

CROWDED STAGE: Some of the GOP’s presidential candidates appeared on stage prior to a debate in South Carolina in November, 2011.
CROWDED STAGE: Some of the GOP’s presidential candidates appeared on stage prior to a debate in South Carolina in November, 2011. Getty Images

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 up with by comparing the healthcare program to slavery. Was lobbyist Herman Cain bleating “9-9-9” in response to every question any worse than former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee scolding the Obamas for letting their daughters listen to Beyoncé 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 that 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 who could still goad him into musing about “self-deportation.”

If Priebus doesn’t come up with something, the eventual winner will be sharing a stage with Carson comparing the United States under President 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. 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 with high-enough numbers to claim a place on stage.

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.

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