They crowded the stage in New Hampshire for a debate-style faceoff.
But the jam-packed Republican field will be narrowed considerably for the first formal debate of the 2016 primary season later in the week. On Tuesday, Fox News announces which 10 presidential hopefuls can participate and the exclusive club will feature notable omissions.
All but three of the 17 major Republican candidates for president participated in a New Hampshire forum Monday night that was essentially a “debate lite.” Unlike Thursday’s nationally televised debate in Cleveland, the gathering didn’t have a cut-off for participation. In their upcoming Ohio meeting, only the GOP’s top 10 candidates in national polling will be allowed on stage.
“We never ever envisioned we’d have 17 major candidates,” said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s representative to the Republican National Committee, who helped create the GOP’s 2016 debate plan. “There’s no perfect solution.”
Without exception, the candidates on Monday aimed their criticism at Democrats instead of each other in a two-hour faceoff where Republicans had more in common than not.
Not mentioned was the one candidate making the most news headed into Thursday’s meeting: Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman who declined to participate in Monday’s gathering is poised to take center stage later in the next meeting.
Trump’s place is assured, having surged into the lead in most recent polls, yet several high-profile Republicans are on the bubble. They include the party’s only female presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina, a former technology executive whose brief surge earlier in the summer has been wiped out by Trump’s rise.
And with Republican primary voting set to begin in six months, those who don’t qualify for Thursday’s nationally televised debate may struggle to stand out in the extraordinarily packed GOP contest.
“Thursday’s debate will be the first debate, not the last debate,” said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who all but conceded he wouldn’t qualify for Thursday’s affair.
“We’re getting larger and large crowds, we’re moving up in the polls,” he told reporters after the New Hampshire forum. “We’re building a movement, our strategy is working – talking directly to voters.”
Jindal’s fate, like that of several Republican rivals, will rest in which polls Fox uses to determine the top 10 candidates.
Several surveys have been released in recent days, with more expected Tuesday, whose margins could make a difference for candidates separated by 1 or 2 points.
For example, in Monmouth University’s survey released Monday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, at 3.2 percent, was the 10th candidate, just above the cutoff.
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 than him could be that high or higher.
Monmouth found that only five candidates – Trump, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – are definitely in the top tier of candidates, while just two – former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore – would not make it into the top ten even when margin of error is taken into account.
Meanwhile, Monday’s meeting offered a prime-time practice round for most of the would-be debaters, who addressed several contentious issues, immigration topping a list that also included abortion and climate change.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another who may not qualify for the upcoming debate, called the flow of immigrants crossing the border illegally “a serious wound.”
“You want to stanch the flow,” he said as his Republican rivals watched from the front row of the crowded St. Anselm College auditorium. On those immigrants who have overstayed visas, Perry charged, “You go find ‘em, you pick ‘em up and you send ‘em back where they’re from.”
Monday’s participants included seven current or former governors, four senators, a businesswoman, a retired neurosurgeon and one former senator.
While Thursday’s debate will be broadcast on Fox News, Monday’s event was aired on C-SPAN and local television stations in Iowa and South Carolina – states that, along with New Hampshire, will host the first contests in the presidential primary calendar next February.
After the forum, Kasich was asked about Trump’s absence.
“I never thought about him,” the Ohio governor said. “It’d have been great if he’d have been here.”