The clock is winding down toward the first Republican presidential debate, set for Aug. 6 in Cleveland, and the anxiety level around pretty much every candidate not named Donald Trump is palpable.
Sixteen major GOP candidates are jockeying for 10 slots, and the antics are intensifying.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who may have thought he would be the larger-than-life truth-teller of the 2016 cycle (and not Mr. Trump), wasn’t getting much media oxygen. And so he reduced himself to calling his own majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a liar on the Senate floor, sparking a backlash from other GOP elders.
Mike Huckabee stole more thunder when he accused President Obama of marching Israelis to "the door of the oven" over the Iran nuclear deal. When Mr. Obama rebuked Mr. Huckabee Monday for the Holocaust reference, the former governor of Arkansas doubled down with a Facebook video.
Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina made a video of himself gleefully destroying his old-fashioned flip phone, after Trump read aloud its phone number in public.
Senator Cruz and Huckabee look reasonably safe to make the debate, while Senator Graham will be hard-pressed to make the cut. His Senate BFF John McCain – who won the New Hampshire primary in both 2000 and 2008 – will campaign with Graham in the Granite State next weekend, but that seems a bit late to affect the polls.
Fox News, which is hosting the first debate with Facebook, has said the top 10 candidates from an average of the five most recent national polls, "as recognized by Fox News,” will be eligible to debate.
“Such polling must be conducted by major, nationally recognized organizations that use standard methodological techniques,” Fox has also said.
But, specifically, which polls meet Fox’s criteria?
“That’s the most closely guarded secret in America,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
Take the six most recent national polls of Republican voters, which, when averaged by Real Clear Politics, give us an idea of who will make the debate. Trump leads (18.2 percent), followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (13.7 percent), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (11.7 percent). The other candidates are in single digits. The polls were done by CNN/ORC, Public Policy Polling (PPP), ABC/Washington Post, Fox News, USA Today/Suffolk University, and Monmouth University.
Fox says it will use its own polling group to average the national polls. And, according to Fox's executive vice president for news, "partisan polls will be excluded." That could eliminate the poll by PPP, which is run by Democrats. Fox has set a deadline of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 4, for eligible polls.
There are reasons to believe that the importance of this first debate is being way overblown. Most voters are barely paying attention to the 2016 race. After all, the primaries don’t start until next February. And there will be plenty of other debates – one a month through the end of the year, and more starting in January.
But this first debate sets the table for the rest of the campaign – both in media exposure and in fundraising. Clips from that first debate will be replayed ad nauseum for days after the actual event, magnifying its importance.
“For some of [the candidates], if they can’t get on the debate stage, and stay on the debate stage, there’s no way they’re going to get the nomination or get the fundraising to get the nomination,” says Mr. O’Connell.
Never mind that with 10 candidates on stage – or possibly one or two more, in the event that Fox declares a tie for that 10th spot – each person will barely have time to say much of anything. “Gotcha” lines are no doubt being cooked up and rehearsed.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) has tried to play down the great debate on debates.
"Debates are not the be-all and end-all. They are just a part of the larger process,” wrote RNC communications director Sean Spicer in the Wall Street Journal Sunday. “Mitt Romney did not participate in the first debate of the 2012 cycle, but he still went on to win the nomination.”
The point about Mr. Romney may sound good, but the current cycle isn’t like the last one. In 2011, the first debate took place before Romney had declared, and given his fundraising clout, it was always clear he’d be a top-tier candidate, if not the likely nominee.
It’s the massive GOP field – with the outsize personality of Trump at the top -- that is giving party bosses heartache. They say they welcome all comers, but debate criteria that may leave out the only female candidate, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and a sitting governor or two, are dealing the party a blow. Trump-mania clearly wasn’t part of the plan.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, whose state is playing host to the first debate, is one of the few candidates rising in the polls and may barely make the cut. If not, he can take part in a forum Fox is holding earlier on Aug. 6 for the also-rans. But sitting at the kids’ table is no candidate’s idea of a path to success.
In addition, New Hampshire Republicans are worried that Fox News's rules for participation in the first debate are effectively "nationalizing" the primary, and usurping the Granite State's "solemn duty" to winnow the field. Plenty of candidates are still campaigning in New Hampshire. But after next week's debate in Cleveland, we may know if the N.H. concerns were correct.