GOP debate lineup: Unfair to bottom tier?

Two candidates who participated in initial main debates have been demoted to Tuesday's undercard event because of low poll ratings. Two others won't appear at all.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
In this photo taken Oct. 28, 2015, Republican presidential candidates, from left, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Colo.

Is the Republican debate system unfairly casting struggling candidates into the political darkness?

That may sound harsh, but it’s the way some lower-ranking GOP contenders may be feeling this Friday now that Fox Business Network has announced lineups for next Tuesday’s debate events.

Two candidates who participated in initial main debates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have been demoted to the undercard event because of low poll ratings. Two others, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York Gov. George Pataki, won’t appear in either the main event or the “kiddie table” one. Their polls are so low they’re getting cut altogether.

Senator Graham seems particularly unhappy with the exclusion. He’s performed well onstage, with relaxed and witty comments, and he feels he represents a hawkish faction of the party that otherwise doesn’t have a candidate.

“It is ironic that the only veteran in the race is going to be denied a voice the day before Veterans Day,” Graham campaign manager Christian Ferry said in a statement on behalf of the senator. “In the end, the biggest loser tonight is the American people and the Republican presidential primary process that has been hijacked by news outlets.”

“Hijacked”? No wonder representatives of Graham and other candidates met last weekend to try to draw up a list of demands and influence upcoming debates. That effort broke apart because the candidates wanted different things, depending on their particular campaign needs. Unions are always tough to organize.

Well, the biggest loser here may be Governor Christie. He got kicked out of the main event because he didn’t meet its threshold of averaging 2.5 percent in major national polls. But right now, his strength (such as it is) is regional: He’s been concentrating on retail politicking in the first primary state of New Hampshire, where he’s at 8 percent in a recent WBUR poll, good for fifth place.

Plus, Christie’s made a splash on social media in recent days. A video of him discussing the problems of addiction (his mom was a smoker, a law school friend was addicted to painkillers) has had nearly 6 million views since Oct. 30.

Christie’s problem here is that the old model of competing for presidential nominations may be changing in front of his eyes. The explosion in debate popularity has made these televised exchanges much more important. In essence, they’re nationalizing a campaign that used to proceed station by station, from state to state.

Winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary might still springboard a candidate to stardom. But the national exposure from the debates has clearly made it easier for outsider candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson to seize the attention of voters and the media and overshadow traditional campaign efforts.

Mr. Huckabee? He’s got different issues. His campaign hasn’t done as well as his 2008 effort to this point. He’s lost his religious and socially conservative voters to others, particularly Dr. Carson. At this point for Huckabee, it’s hard to see a path to the nomination.

Christie and Huckabee will still be on a stage, of course. It’ll just be a stage watched by fewer voters. Graham and Mr. Pataki, on the other hand, won’t even be at the “kiddie table.” No turkey for them!

They’re upset because they know the exclusion could help end their campaigns. But in truth, their campaigns may be winding down already.

Yes, the polls that Fox used to figure the upcoming debate lineups included at least one, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, that didn’t even include Graham, Pataki, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore as choices. It’s tough to get traction when you’re a write-in.

But that’s not because the pollsters are part of a conspiracy. It’s because nobody had been picking those candidates, so why bother? According to the latest RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls, Pataki has 0 percent. Yes, zero. Graham has 0.5, as does Governor Jindal. Mr. Santorum has 0.8.

These numbers come after three debate rounds, remember. Would another round of the same-old really help the expellees?

And if they think it would, is the Republican Party the answer? Or should they go in another direction?

“What if the GOP pres cands excluded from the @FBNlive debate switched parties? Plenty of room on the Dems Debate stage,” tweeted CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller on Friday.

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