As I've been predicting for a while now, the fight for the final two slots in the first primetime Republican presidential debate has begun to heat up. When Fox News announced that they would be limiting the number of candidates invited to their debate to only the top ten in polling, it was inevitable that there would be a struggle to get on the main stage. But there will also be a "consolation prize" debate (better known as the "kids' table" debate) earlier in the day, which will feature those who didn't make the cut -- and it could wind up being even more interesting and quotable than the main event.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let's take a look at the standings. By the Fox News rules, candidates' standings are measured by the five most recent national opinion polls of self-identified Republicans. Because it is impossible to know how many national polls will be released in the final week or so, some of this data may already exist in the last few polls taken. They show that top eight slots are pretty solid, at this point. These eight candidates are divided into two tiers, one able to consistently get double digits, and one unable to achieve even this low bar. The top tier at this point only includes (in order): Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker. The single-digit tier is all grouped in the range between 5.0 and 7.0 percent. The order may shuffle around a bit by the time the debates happen, but according to the last five national polls the candidates currently are: Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. All eight of these men will be in the first big debate, barring some spectacular meltdown in their polling numbers.
There's a large gap between the top eight and the bottom tier, though. Currently, only one of the bottom tier is averaging above three percent. They're pretty tightly grouped, too, meaning many of them could vault to the top of this bottom tier with one or two good poll responses (of, say, four percent support). In order, this group consists of: Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, and George Pataki. Actually, I'm not entirely sure where Pataki belongs in that list, because Real Clear Politics isn't even posting his polling numbers anymore. Here's where the five-poll averages for each of them stand, with their last three poll results [in brackets]:
3.2 -- Christie [4, 3, 3]
2.4 -- Kasich [4, 3, 2]
2.0 -- Perry [3, 1, 4]
1.4 -- Fiorina [1, 4, 0]
1.4 -- Santorum [2, 1, 1]
1.2 -- Jindal [2, 1, 2]
0.2 -- Graham [1, 0, 0]
?? -- Pataki
As you can see, it won't take much to jump to the top of this pack. So while Christie and Kasich would currently make the cut for the main debate, this could change quickly with a couple of new polls. Rick Perry is the most likely to make such a jump, but it's not out of the question for Fiorina, Santorum, and Jindal (although it probably is out of reach for Lindsey Graham and George Pataki).
Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, I'm thinking that maybe the "kids' table" debate might prove to be the more interesting of the two. I say this for two reasons. The first is that the kids' table debate will be Trump-free (so much for the "kids'/adults' table" metaphor, eh?). And the second is that everyone in the kids' table debate will be struggling mightily to get noticed by the public, so they may say even more jaw-droppingly astonishing things than those in the primetime debate.
In the big event, Donald Trump is going to dominate the conversation. Indeed, he would dominate the conversation in this debate even if he didn't open his mouth once. And we know Trump will indeed be opening his mouth (he is, after all, Donald Trump), so the other candidates are going to all become mere foils for The Donald. The others will be asked -- repeatedly, in slightly different formats -- the same question: "What do you think of what Trump just said?" This will, of course, be highly entertaining because Trump can always be counted on to say some highly entertaining things, after which it'll be fun to watch all the other candidates squirm as they react. Personally, I'm rooting for Rick Perry to make the cut to the big event, because so far he's been the strongest anti-Trump voice out there among the other candidates. So pitting the two against each other on a stage would certainly be interesting (and might even lead to fisticuffs, who knows?).
But the afternoon debate will not have the gigantic distraction that is Donald Trump. The candidates will be able to shine on their own, instead of cowering in Trump's shadow, to put this another way. There are certainly some interesting personalities in the bottom tier, and they'll all be downright desperate to have their soundbite become the one that everyone starts talking about. So I expect some rather astonishing statements to be made. Of the candidates who are currently not making the cut, all of them (with the possible exception of George Pataki) have already made some eyebrow-raising controversial statements on the national stage in the past. Perry, Santorum, and Jindal will all be trying to impress the same demographic group, as they fight for the evangelical vote. So perhaps one of them will come up with a truly radical "integrate church and state" idea. Or Carly Fiorina could say something vicious about Hillary Clinton, as she makes her attempt to get the female vote.
Not making the cut to the big debate is going to be seen as a body-blow to all of these candidates by most of the political press. The candidates know this, and will be attempting to avoid this fate in all the upcoming debates (many of which will also institute some sort of cut line for who gets on stage). There's only one way for them to do so -- to have such a breakout performance at the first debate that the public starts paying them some attention. And while he won't actually be in the room, all these kids' table candidates know that any outrageous statement they make will be measured against whatever Trump comes up with in the big debate. That's a pretty high hurdle to clear.
While the main event will doubtlessly be good television (pretty much a guarantee, with Trump at the center podium), I wouldn't be surprised if the truly extremist quotes actually come out of the kids' table debate. Without Trump's presence (but knowing full well he's currently the frontrunner), the bottom-tier Republican candidates will all be searching for that perfect Trump-killing line. The only way to face Trump in an upcoming debate will be to out-Trump him in the first kids' table debate. I could easily see Bobby Jindal or Rick Santorum (to name just two) make a hearty attempt to do precisely this. Which is why the kids' table debate might actually be the more interesting to watch, of the two.
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