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Uncertainty Continues to Dog Houston Debate

The upcoming GOP presidential debate in Houston has become a headache for Texas Republicans, who have witnessed it go through one shakeup after another.

The Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado, on Oct. 28, 2015.

When the Republican National Committee announced eight months ago that Houston would host a presidential debate, it was seen as a coup for a state eager to assert its influence in the 2016 nominating process. 

However, the debate has become a headache for Texas Republicans, who have witnessed it go through one shakeup after another. With just over a month until its scheduled date, two key details remain unsettled: where it will be in Houston and the full lineup of media organizations hosting it.

The state's Republicans are watching closely as they seek to maximize Texas' role in the race for the White House. The state has already been blessed with a primary on March 1 that could give it more say than usual in who the next president is. 

The latest bout of uncertainty came Thursday night, when the conservative magazine National Review said it was disinvited from the debate due to a special issue it is publishing critical of frontrunner Donald Trump. The issue includes a blistering editorial that calls the billionaire a "menace to American conservatism."

"Tonight, a top official with the RNC called me to say that National Review was being disinvited," Jack Fowler, the magazine's publisher, wrote on its website shortly after the story went online. "The reason: Our 'Against Trump' editorial and symposium. We expected this was coming. Small price to pay for speaking the truth about The Donald." 

In a statement confirming the news, RNC communications director Sean Spicer said, "Debate partners can't have a predisposition towards or against any candidate."

National Review had been set to be a part of the debate along with three other media partners: CNN, Salem Communications and Telemundo. It is unclear if National Review will be replaced by another partner.

The end of the National Review partnership was not the first major change for the debate. After candidates and their campaigns complained loudly about CNBC's handling of the third debate, which was held in October in Colorado, the RNC announced it was cutting ties with NBC, the original host of the Houston event.

The RNC's decision about NBC was praised by Republican leaders in Texas all the way up to Gov. Greg Abbott. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the remaining Texan in the race for the White House, expressed confidence at the time that the end of the RNC's partnership with NBC would not jeopardize having a debate in Houston, his hometown. 

"Listen, when you’re getting 23, 24 million people or 50 million people watching it, I feel confident there are going to be plenty of media outlets who are happy to make millions of dollars selling ads," Cruz told reporters while campaigning in Iowa.

The RNC cleared up some of the confusion last week when it announced CNN will replace NBC as a host of the Houston debate. Yet the RNC also introduced new uncertainty in the process, rescheduling the event from Feb. 26 to Feb. 25 and saying it will now be held at a "location to be decided." 

Before the RNC's dustup with NBC, the University of Houston had been set as the site of the debate. Yet as of Friday, that no longer appeared to be a sure thing, with CNN, the RNC and the school declining to comment on it. 

The debate drama has upended plans the Harris County GOP had for its Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, which it is hoping attracts a number of presidential candidates given its proximity to the event. Originally set for Feb. 25, the dinner is now being held the day before.

Disclosure: The University of Houston is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics 2016 elections