For all the talk before Monday's unveiling of the much-anticipated RNC autopsy report about more robust GOP efforts to appeal to minorities and narrow the deficit with Democrats on technology and data, it's the party's move to take control of the presidential primaries that could have the most impact and stir the most controversy.
The party's prescription to cure the ills that helped bring on yet another disastrous presidential cycle would revamp its presidential nominating rules in ways to benefit well-funded candidates and hamper insurgents - a move that may add fuel to the already smoldering feud between the GOP establishment and the tea party-inspired base.
Tucked in near the end of the 97-page report, formally known as The Growth and Opportunity Project, are less than four pages that amount to a political bombshell: the five-member panel urges halving the number of presidential primary debates in 2016 from 2012, creating a regional primary cluster after the traditional early states and holding primaries rather than caucuses or conventions.
Each of those steps would benefit a deep-pocketed candidate in the mold of Mitt Romney. That is, someone who doesn't need the benefit of televised debates to get attention because he or she can afford TV ads; has the cash to air commercials and do other forms of voter contact in multiple big states at one time; and has more appeal with a broader swath of voters than the sort of ideologically-driven activists who typically attend caucuses and conventions.
The recommendations are also a nod to the party's donor class. Several donors bluntly told RNC Chair Reince Priebus at meetings right after the election that they wanted Iowa, with its more conservative base, to have less of a role in the process.
Asked whether the recommendations would benefit a better-financed candidate, Priebus offered only a tepid embrace of the committee's months-in-the-making product.
"It sounds reasonable to me, I haven't run the numbers," he said after a National Press Club speech touting the report. He focused on the need for fewer debates and another element of the proposal: moving up the GOP convention from August to late June or July.
The ultimate aim, Priebus said, should be "shortening the primary season generally, which also limits the amount of slicing and dicing that goes on in our party."
But allies of potential 2016 hopefuls Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum, sensing a power play by the establishment-dominated panel, reacted angrily to recommendations they think are aimed at hurting candidates who do well in caucuses and conventions and need debates to get attention.
"Caucuses give you a better glimpse of what the base of the party wants," said Iowa GOP Chair A.J. Spiker, who hails from the Paul wing of the party. "And those people, they aren't going to be swayed as easily by television ads as a primary voter. They're a more politically educated voter."
Spiker added that an "attempt to get rid of that is really an attempt to get rid of what the base of the party wants. I think RNC membership would object to that too."
A close Paul adviser was even blunter, warning the party against pushing primaries rather than caucuses.
"Elimination of caucuses would mean nuclear war with the grassroots, social conservatives and [the] Ron Paul movement," said this Republican.
But it wasn't just the libertarian Republicans who were uneasy about the primary recommendations.
John Brabender, Santorum's chief adviser, said the reforms would favor the moneyed candidates.
"While I commend Chairman Priebus for taking important steps to remedy Republicans' recent election failures, I am troubled by the possibility of a condensed presidential primary process which undoubtedly gives an advantage to establishment backed candidates and the wealthiest candidates," said Brabender.
Any changes to the party's nominating process would have to be ratified by the full membership of the RNC. The first debate on the recommendation will take place next month at the party's spring meeting in Los Angeles, but party veterans don't expect any final resolution on the 2016 plan that soon.
The autopsy committee members - former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, South Carolina GOP Committeeman Glenn McCall, Florida GOP strategist and Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw, Mississippi GOP committeeman Henry Barbour and Puerto Rico committeewoman Zori Fonalledas - notably stayed out of the question of whether presidential delegates should be allocated at-large or proportionally. But they left no doubt that they wanted a primary that does less damage to their eventual nominee and wraps up more quickly to give their candidate more time to face the opposition.
The general idea of a shorter primary has strong appeal among many Republicans who prefer beating Democrats than beating up on each other.
"I think it's a smart idea to have a shorter primary season," said New Hampshire GOP Committeeman Steve Duprey. "There's always a risk that you make it too short and the candidates don't get fully vetted and you don't give a chance to a candidate who might stumble a little bit early to recover. There's a balance between too short and too long. I think our current process is too long."
They urge 10-12 debates, starting no sooner than September 1, 2015, and suggest that candidates that don't adhere to participating in the RNC-approved candidate forums could lose support.
The report raises, "the possibility of penalizing candidates and/or state parties (perhaps through the RNC rules process) through the loss of delegates to the convention if they do not abide by the potential new debate structure."
The RNC tried to take hold of the debate process before the 2008 presidential primary began but the effort collapsed when the individual candidates made clear they would determine their own debate schedules. The threat of losing delegates could force the candidates to only attend the RNC-approved debates, but such a punitive plan will be very controversial.
"Candidates appear in debates to raise their name ID without spending hard cash for the equivalent of cable TV ads," said veteran GOP strategist Dave Carney, who worked on Rick Perry's presidential campaign in 2012. "I'm not sure the best intentions of the party and the elite to reduce the number of engagements has any real impact on that process."
The panel made clear they want to continue to give the traditional kick-off states a "carve-out" to start the process, but the decision to move to regional primary clusters would make campaigning more difficult for candidates without significant money.
It's unclear what such a regional system would look like, whether it would be like the Super Tuesday of past Democratic primaries where many Southern states voted on the same day, or would take place over a period of weeks.
"These are decisions the RNC will be making as they implement [the plan]," said Fleischer. "But if the convention moves up, it launches a cascade of events that will require changes in the primary schedule. The key is to move up the convention, which everyone wants to do. The details of what that means to the current primary calendar then need to get fleshed out, which is the bread and butter of the RNC."
The committee is more clear cut, though, on their preference for primaries as the best nominating method for building the party.
"We also recommend broadening the base of the party and inviting as many voters as possible into the Republican Party by discouraging conventions and caucuses or the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention," the committee writes. "Our party needs to grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so."
To many Republicans, however, the effort smacks of moving the primary away from the grassroots in the name of a less messy and more expeditious campaign.
"It's hard to ask a TV commercial or a web ad a question and be able to watch the candidate answer directly without squirming -- retail politics matter," said Carney, a New Hampshire-based operative. "Less debates [and a] compacted time frame equals less vetting by rank and file voters and increases the importance of funders and special interests. Hotel ballrooms and corporate board rooms will see a lot more of the candidates then main street merchants. I think the wait staff of diners are more informative then the catering staff at the Yale Club. In the end voters matter - not the tidiness of the process and the self-fulfilling narrative that the political elite seek."
Conservatives have been particularly suspicious of the committee since it was announced last year because of the three best-known members, Fleischer, Bradshaw and Barbour, are pillars of the party establishment. And after reading the primary recommendations, these movement Republicans feel vindicated their concerns were well-placed.
"It looks like a system of the establishment, by the establishment, and for the establishment," said conservative P.R. executive Greg Mueller, a veteran of Pat Buchanan's campaigns.
Craig Robinson, who runs an Iowa conservative blog, said the committee was essentially fighting the last political war rather than considering what an open-seat 2016 race will look like.
"This talk about compression makes me very nervous because if we've got to get through this whole thing in five months, holy smokes, it basically is going to say if you want to win this primary you have to have the most money," said Robinson. "I also think it's a huge mistake to make all these judgments against the last campaign when we were running against an incumbent president."
Davie Bossie, head of the conservative group Citizens United, fretted that the proposals would mean conservative grassroots candidates, already outmatched organizationally and financially against the GOP establishment on the presidential level, "even less opportunity to break through."
"I don't think that is a good thing for the party and I definitely don't think it's a good thing for the conservative movement," said Bossie.
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