SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Fireworks were few and far between at the GOP’s foreign policy debate tonight, but if any issue provoked the ire of some candidates it was not each other but rather how CBS News’ moderator Scott Pelley ran the event.
Numerous candidates from Rep. Michele Bachmann to Rep. Ron Paul complained about unfair treatment from the network, arguing that rival campaigns had received far more attention during the debate. The Bachmann campaign went so far as to release an email that they said spokeswoman Alice Stewart had “inadvertently received” from CBS earlier in the day.
In the email string, CBS News’ political analyst John Dickerson said that Bachmann was “not going to get many questions during the debate and she’s nearly off the charts,” a reference to the Minnesota congresswoman’s low standing in the polls.
After the debate Stewart said that CBS News was guilty of “a bias” against Bachmann.
“I inadvertently received an email where CBS made it clear that Michele was going to receive fewer questions than the other candidates. Clearly this is a problem,” Stewart said. “The debates are an opportunity for the candidates to share their views on the issues. This is an important issue for Congresswoman Bachmann. She’s a member of the House, the Foreign Intelligence Committee. She knows this issue unlike the other candidates on this stage and the email chain that I inadvertently received clearly indicates a bias on CBS’ part to limit the questions to Congresswoman Bachmann.
“We had discussions about [it] and they indicated that they would make sure that the level — that the playing field would be level,” Stewart added. “However she received substantially fewer questions than the other candidates and she wasn’t allowed any follow-ups.
“There’s nothing that can be done now. The debate’s over,” Stewart said. “They assured us prior to debate that it was going to be a fair and level playing field and it certainly wasn’t. We didn’t want to have to get the word out but they made it clear to us that it was going to be fair and it wasn’t.”
Other candidates also complained about their treatment during the debate.
Paul’s spokesman Jesse Benton accused CBS of “disgraceful” actions that stemmed from an “arrogance” in thinking that “they can choose the next president.”
“Ron Paul consistently polls among the top three in the key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire,” Benton said in a statement. “He is polling in double digits in most respected polls. Congressman Paul is ranked among the top three in fundraising results. Congressman Paul serves on the House Foreign Relations Committee. Congressman Paul is a veteran. And, Congressman Paul has contrasting views on foreign policy that many Americans find worthy of inquiry and discussion. CBS’s treatment of Congressman Paul is disgraceful, especially given that tonight’s debate centered on foreign policy and national security.
“Congressman Paul was only allocated 90 seconds of speaking in one televised hour,” Benton said. “If we are to have an authentic national conversation on issues such as security and defense, we can and must do better to ensure that all voices are heard. CBS News, in their arrogance, may think they can choose the next president. Fortunately, the people of Iowa, New Hampshire, and across America get to vote and not the media elites.”
Bachmann and Paul were not the only ones who complained. During the debate itself, former Utah Gov. and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman at one point remarked, “Gets a little lonely over here in Siberia.” To which former Sen. Rick Santorum quipped, “Tell me about it.”
Afterwards CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair shrugged off the Bachmann flap, saying, “It was a candid exchange about the reality of the circumstances — Bachmann remains at 4 percent in the polls.”
Pelley even waded into the spin room himself, but he did not want to comment on the candidates’ complaints.
“I’ll tell you that the time for all of the candidates was limited. We had an hour and a half. We had eight candidates,” Pelley told reporters. “I’ll also tell you we spent an enormous amount of time, several weeks, counting all of the questions of all the candidates, making sure everyone had a fair shot. Gov. Huntsman, who is polling around 1 percent at this point, made a point of coming up to me on stage and said, ‘I really appreciate how much you talked to the candidates who are not polling very high in numbers.’ So I think the candidates felt they were well treated.”
Clearly, though, that was not the case.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.
ABC News’ Michael Falcone, Emily Friedman, Susan Archer, Elicia Dover, Arlette Saenz & Jason Volack contributed to this report.