CLEVELAND — It’s the first really good news — and really bad news — for Republicans seeking the Presidential nomination: Who’s in the first prime-time debate and who’s not.
In: billionaire businessman Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Out: former tech executive Carly Fiorina, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The largest field of contenders in modern memory challenged debate organizers, who wanted to ensure that the event Aug. 6 in Cleveland didn’t turn into a 17-ring circus.
Fox News relied on an average of five national polls to decide the lineups for the prime-time debate and the consolation prize, a forum four hours earlier.
“We never ever envisioned we’d have 17 major candidates,” said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s representative to the Republican National Committee who helped craft the debate plan. “There’s no perfect solution.”
Republican officials were particularly concerned about Fiorina’s status, hoping she would help balance Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton’s push to rally women to her side. Trump’s recent surge in the polls, a surprise to many Republican officials, damaged her chances to make the cut.
Some Republicans fear that Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and other divisive issues could hurt the party, but the reality TV star says he’s been defying expectations all his life.
Asked to explain his rise, he told MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Aug. 4: “I think people are tired, they’re sick and tired of incompetent politicians.”
While Trump was far and away the front-runner in the five most recent national polls that determined the debate lineup, several candidates were grouped together in the single digits, most separated by a number smaller than the margin of error.
For example, in a Monmouth University survey released Aug. 3, Kasich was the 10th candidate with the support of 3.2 percent of voters.
But after taking the margin of error into account, Monmouth noted that Kasich’s support could be as low as 1.5 percent, while almost any of the candidates who polled lower could be that high or higher.
Some candidates looked at the polls on Aug. 4, and then looked past the Cleveland debate. Five more party-sanctioned debates are scheduled before primary voting begins in February.
“This first debate is just one opportunity of many,” Amy Frederick, an aide to Fiorina, wrote to supporters. “With many more debates to come, we fully expect that Carly will soon stand on the stage and show America what real leadership looks like.”
Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Dirmann issued a challenge of sorts: “The Governor will debate anyone anywhere at any time.”
Candidates have already begun to turn their attention toward Trump, considered the ultimate wildcard on the debate stage.
Asked about Trump while courting religious conservatives on Aug. 4, Bush said the businessman’s rhetoric on immigrants is “wrong.” ”We have a different tone and a different view,” he said.
“I respect the fact that he’s the front-runner for the Republican nomination,” Bush continued. “This is a serious thing. But I think to win and govern the right way — we have to unite rather than divide.”
By Steve Peoples. AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington and Associated Press writer Eric Schelzig in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed