Let’s get ready to rumble… in a much smaller ring.

ABC News drew the honors for hosting the final GOP debate prior to the New Hampshire primary next month and they’ve released the format and entry qualifications. Get ready for a change. Unlike the crowded, two tier events we’ve seen up to now, ABC will make it a more exclusive club which may see as few as six people on the stage. (The Hill)

ABC News will not include an undercard contest during its Republican presidential debate in February, according to new criteria released from the network.

The decision threatens to cut the debate stage to as few as six candidates just three days before New Hampshire primary.

Candidates will have three avenues to make the debate stage. The top three finishers in the Iowa caucuses’ popular vote will punch a ticket to the stage, as well as any candidate polling within the top six in averages of recent New Hampshire or national polls. ABC News sources confirmed that there will not be an additional debate for those candidates who do not meet that criteria.

It seems like it was only this week when I was asking why Fox was expanding the field of debate participants this close to the Iowa caucuses by adding Gilmore to the undercard. Now ABC seems to be lurching a bit far in the other direction. Or are they? This thing has been dragging on since last summer and we’ve been reading poll numbers and picking apart every speech and hand gesture for so long that it feels like the race it too old to evolve much. But it’s times like this when I have to remind myself that not a single vote has been cast yet. When ABC News hosts this debate there will only have been a hundred thousand or so votes cast in one of the nation’s smallest states. (Electorally speaking, anyway.) Should we be lopping a bunch of people out of what may be their best chance at some exposure to a public which is just waking up to realize there’s an election taking place? Maxwell Tani at Business Insider points out that quite a few people could be left out in the cold

Polls could shift dramatically in the next week. But currently, such criteria would exclude Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania)…

Thursday’s Republican debate, hosted by Fox News, could serve as a final proving ground for a handful of Republican candidates attempting to break into — or stay in — the top tier. But some candidates have proven that being excluded from the main-stage debate doesn’t necessarily constitute a campaign death sentence.

I’m not sure how I feel about this decision yet. Part of me is already suffering from primary fatigue, but it still seems like they all deserve a shot until some delegate numbers start building up in serious volume. In any event, prepare for howls of protest from at least Rand Paul if he doesn’t make the cut.

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