Republican presidential debate: The challenge of being relegated to the 'kids table'
Fox News hosting the two sets of GOP debates this week, but only one group gets prime time
When Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham was asked recently what he thought about being excluded from the very first prime-time debate, the South Carolina senator didn't mince words: "It sucks," he said.
It does at that, and not just for him, but for the other low-polling candidates who will be relegated to the so-called second-tier debate being hosted by Fox News on Thursday, hours before the likes of Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio hog the media spotlight at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena.
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Because it would be near impossible to hold just one debate for all the declared Republican contenders (currently at 17), Fox News decided to hold two debates on the same night. The top 10 candidates with the highest aggregate average poll numbers will appear in the 9 p.m. debate.
The rest will participate in a not-for-prime-time round at 5 p.m., a significant blow for campaigns already struggling to gain traction among a competitive and crowded field. (Fox had initially said candidates would need at least a one per cent or higher polling average to take part in the second-tier debate, but it has since dropped the requirement.)
'Very bad news'
For the second-tier gang, this "is very bad news," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Centre for Politics. "I'm not going to say it's an automatic death knell because there's a debate almost every month, and it's possible that, say, one of the candidates placed at the kids' table will be able to make it to the adult table."
The kids' table, the JV (junior varsity) team are just some of the belittling monikers being used to describe this second-tier debate.
But it clearly does put those performing on the undercard at an immediate disadvantage in that they will be scrapping for recognition from a much lower viewership.
More importantly, being at the kids' table sends a message to donors and party activists about who has a real shot and who doesn't, Sabato says.
Fox News's two-tier format has faced its own share of criticism, including from Sabato who says he doesn't like the idea of the media being in the position of picking and choosing winners before all the candidates have a shot.
"It's hurtful. It makes them look like the junior varsity and people are going to take them less seriously," said veteran Democratic campaign strategist Bob Shrum.
This is why, in the last few days, candidates like Rick Perry, Chris Christie and John Kasich, all on the threshold of entry into the prime-time debate, have engaged in a full throttle media blitz in an attempt to secure the remaining spots.
According to the online newspaper Politico, all have been courting Fox News and conservative radio outlets.
So far, at least according to the aggregate average polls conducted by the RealClearPolitics website, candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Rand Paul all should make it to the prime-time debate, along with Trump, Bush, Rubio, and Walker. (It's still unclear what poll average Fox News will use.)
So where does that leave the other candidates — Graham, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore?
'On life support'
"It doesn't mean it's over, but it certainly means you're starting out on life support," says Washington-based Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
"You can recover but it also requires somebody else up top to trip and fall," he says.
Shrum suggests it is always possible that one of the candidates in the second-tier debate could somehow break out and catch fire.
"And I suspect anybody who is consigned to that secondary debate is sitting there trying to figure out, and their strategists are trying to figure out, how to do something that gets a lot of attention, captures people's imagination and gets them on stage for the next debate."
The challenge, he says, will be trying to find that distinctive position that really appeals to the Republican base.
"You're going to have to try and generate headlines," says O'Connell, though he cautions that could be "a risky proposition.
"Try not to throw grenades but you're going to have to spice it up."
Sabato, only half joking, wonders if the kids' table candidates should try to crash the adult party. "What do they have to lose?"
A more subtle approach, he suggests, would be to challenge the others with an "I want every candidate to answer the following question" dare.
Or, he says, someone could wave a piece of paper around asking every candidate to sign a declaraton that they will support the eventual Republican nominee and not run as an independent, a not-so-veiled swipe at Trump who has refused to rule out that option.
"We've seen the only way for these candidates to get attention is to get in an argument with Donald Trump."