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‘What the Heck?’ CNN’s Debate Plans Leave New Hampshire Officials Confused.

With great fanfare this week, CNN announced it would host the network’s first debate of the 2024 presidential campaign, gathering the Republican candidates for a marquee event on Jan. 21 at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

There was only one problem: Saint Anselm had no idea what CNN was talking about.

“We were surprised to be included on a press release by a network about a debate which we had not planned or booked,” Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm, said in a statement on Friday.

The chairman of New Hampshire’s Republican Party, Chris Ager, went a little further.

“The CNN thing came out and everybody’s like, ‘What the heck?’” Mr. Ager said in an interview. “I’m still scratching my head. And I still haven’t been contacted by CNN at all.”

There is, however, a competing debate scheduled to take place three days earlier, hosted by CNN’s rivals at ABC News. The ABC debate, on Jan. 18, is set to be held at Saint Anselm, and it has the approval of both the college and state Republican officials. “We’ve been working for months planning with ABC,” Mr. Ager said. “We’ve already done a run-through of the facility. We’ve agreed on a lot of the details.”

The CNN announcement, Mr. Ager said, caught his team off guard. “For a big, professional organization like that, putting out a location on this date and the location doesn’t know — something’s not quite right,” he said.

A CNN spokeswoman said on Friday: “We can’t speak to any miscommunication within Saint Anselm, but we are moving forward with our plans to host a debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 21.”

ABC is the traditional host of presidential debates in New Hampshire ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. Its local station, WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., which is a co-host of the Jan. 18 debate, is New Hampshire’s only affiliate of the Big Three broadcast networks.

Mr. Ager said he also had concerns about CNN holding a debate just two days before the Jan. 23 primary, which he said would leave candidates little time to respond to any major moments onstage.

“In New Hampshire, we like to give everybody a fair shot as much as possible,” he said.

The apparent debate snafu came as the Republican National Committee announced that candidates were free to appear at any debate, eliminating a previous requirement that the candidates could participate only in debates formally approved by the party. The rule change, announced Friday, will potentially offer more national exposure to the remaining candidates, as they try to make inroads against the front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Trump has so far refused to appear at any of the four televised Republican primary debates. He has not signaled if he will appear at the ABC event in New Hampshire on Jan. 18.

CNN also said this week that it would host a televised debate in Des Moines on Jan. 10 at Drake University, ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Drake University issued a news release promoting that event, so it appears the institution was aware of the network’s plans.

Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.


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