CORONADO, Calif. — As the leading GOP prospects for the White House ramp up their national outreach, Republicans unveiled plans Friday for a primary season aimed at keeping the nominee unscathed and ready to take on the Democratic candidate heading toward Election Day.
Said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, "We're not going to have a circus."
The RNC approved plans Friday to cut the number of presidential primary debates in half compared with 2012, while seeking to introduce what a spokesman called "an element of conservatism" to those asking the questions. The first of nine scheduled debates is set for Ohio in August, with the criteria to determine who among the roughly 25 Republicans weighing presidential bids will be allowed to participate still to be resolved.
The changes are intended to give the GOP's next presidential nominee an easier path to the White House, two years after Mitt Romney emerged from an extended primary contest bruised and low on campaign cash.
"Keep in mind, 2016 could be a do-or-die moment for our party," said Priebus, who was elected to a record third term as RNC chief. "For almost everything we do, we have to ask ourselves, 'Is this helping us win the White House?'"
In accepting, the former head of the Wisconsin Republican Party was clearly already in campaign mode: "We've been preparing for a long, long time, and we're ready for Hillary."
That would be Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who is widely seen by Republicans as the Democratic candidate they'll most likely face in 2016.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, expected to launch his second presidential campaign bid in the coming months, was scheduled to appear before RNC members later Friday, following Thursday appearances from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
And the meeting was to wrap up at the USS Midway museum in San Diego's harbor with an address from Romney, who shocked many in attendance with his announcement last week that he was considering launching a third bid for the White House.
Several would-be candidates not in attendance dispatched aides and volunteers to help court RNC activists at the meeting. Former Gov. Florida Jeb Bush, meanwhile, began phoning leading officials in New Hampshire this week, with similar calls planned for Iowa — the first and second states on the presidential nominating calendar.
"Certainly I would say I welcome him to the field, and I think he probably knows New Hampshire," said Ted Gatsas, the Republican mayor of New Hampshire's largest city, Manchester, who received a call from Bush on Thursday.
Romney's team suggests he will make a decision about the 2016 campaign soon, both out of fairness to the other candidates contemplating bids and former allies who had begun to move on. GOP officials, including former supporters, said he won't have anything handed to him if he makes a third run.
"While I have a lot of respect for Gov. Romney, and you know I think he is imminently qualified to serve as president, I think there's going to have to be a vetting process in New Hampshire again," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a major Romney supporter in 2012 who was among those on Bush's recent call list.
"I want to know what's his vision for the country, just like I'm going to want to know from every candidate, so I think this field is wide open still," she said.
Also on Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attended the inauguration for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
Christie told reporters he was attending private meetings before heading home but didn't feel any pressure to speed up his 2016 timeline because of Romney and Bush.
"The fact is we all have our own ways of making these decisions," Christie said. "The entry or withdrawal of any particular candidate is not going to make any difference in terms of my timeline. I'll make my decision the way I want to make it and then let people know after I've made it."
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.